By JANE MONSON.
Taming the Sand
THE DESERT BLOWS in at the door and rises to the table where the meal is set; reshapes itself around the room and cloaks each object with a grit-charged mist. Trees that stood sentry across the dunes are vanishing too; in their place scorched backs once resilient under the sun, curl comma-like, bowing closer to the earth through the year as the villagers construct low square walls of straw into the sand. They plan to grow these walls like seeds – repeat them without pardon over the land into a giant fishnet; square straw fractals to capture a pillaging storm; to measure the pattern of its outlawed dust and hold its stone fibres to account. Witnesses recollect the way it wrecked the vines that grew the grapes that fell to raisins and kept the families; illustrate for the jury how it covers dark field beds in yellow like an infertile pollen that insists upon the land, breath by breath. How their exposed skin does what the fruit should – burns, shrinks into itself, dries out to a last promise. They protest from a desiccated sea, the tide less ebb, more flow with each season they fail to hold and harvest. The unwelcome wind awaits the verdict as their voices start to fade. Time pours out through itself and the jury is left weighing up what they heard and what they saw: something about a land they could once predict chasing its own ending.
SHE’D LANDED FACE-DOWN on a chalk drawing of a butterfly. Beside her the bicycle wheels span, humming all the way through her last impression of the world. The street was otherwise quiet and there were no known witnesses. In their absence, nature steps up. The rooks at the crossroad decide to speak for everyone: each turn is tight, cramped and nobody wants to give way or slow down. A tree – one of the tallest in the area, whose vertical branches and feathering leaves draw everything they can from the ground – agrees; through every wise listening leaf, agrees. Reticent at first, objects pitch in. The old red pillar box – diagonally across from her body – stands faithfully responding in a gaping, but dignified manner and announces that before long its chipped iron aperture will receive and relinquish letters and cards in memory of her. The road sighs under a sharp gust; a stone is edged from the kerb onto the middle bar of a drain: clangs, then drops into a tiny wet echo. A bird or more would have been startled, flown in any direction and only resettled after the sirens had taken the picture away. Cats, dogs, squirrels, may twitch every so often in recollection. Insects, darting to unusual vibrations, were maybe even perished or injured in the process. Today, with no threat of rain, there remains just a chalk butterfly; its dust ever so slightly smudged at the left wing, where she kissed it with everything she had in her at the time.
LAST NIGHT A moth confused his throat for cloth, fraying the words each time he tried to let them out. The best part of his life was spent creating and finishing sound, watertight sentences; now names, ages, dates, events, things escaped him through the hour. He faces her daily: looks headlong into the past to see how he might have arrived at meaning or memory. The house is starting to record the home’s absence; plays it back to them at bedtime. In the floor’s creaks, cracks and groans they relive all the battles and defeats; the refrain of each other’s roars and whimpers. The radio keeps a grip on time every other day, unevenly sharing their space like a disembodied lodger; the mouth that never needs feeding. They move in and out of its rotating clatter and calm while the paper keeps coming away from the walls and the chairs look vaguely at the table. One of these days, someone might see all this through the window and witness them properly. Get what it’s like to have the person you know more than you know yourself move out of light into shadow; to be frozen naked between a stranger she knows and a stranger she doesn’t.
THE PUNISHMENT WAS butterflies: staying at her desk and writing down everything she could find and remember from lessons about these dust-winged insects. Some have ears in their wings, she scribbled furiously, like Monarchs, not moths. Hollow veins that carry sound or a blood-like liquid that’s cold and needs the sun to live. Wing tip to wing tip, an inch or two of fraught, fragile land. On the ground you might mistake them for leaves. Their coloured scales on our fingers are damaged flight or death. Chalk-hill blue, Swallowtail, Peacock, Monarch, Red Admiral, Wood White and the Gatekeeper. Dwindling, endangered, extinct, rare. Staring at the rest of the paper he’d thumped down in front of her, she recalled their overlapping voices exploding then fading down the corridor; sat up and looked through the window to where her class had fled the playground to the hill, parachuting the wind inside their jackets, free-falling towards the barricade of teachers below. That’s how she was caught, laughing too much to see where she was going. It was the pigeons that got her – winging full-pelt towards the window, banging and sliding down the glass, toppling off the sill, expressionless and disappearing, another one close behind. She understands now why he chose butterflies: wings for flight and the freedom she’d miss on the hill, colours for cuts when crossing a glass line and silence, for mocking and breaking apart the way it’s meant to travel, defy boundaries and survive.
Jane Monson lives in Cambridge where she is a poet, tutor and specialist mentor for disabled students at the University of Cambridge. She previously was Associate Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. Her MA in Creative Writing is from UEA; her PhD, on the prose poetry of Francis Ponge is from Cardiff University. She is the editor of This Line Is Not for Turning (2011), an anthology of contemporary British prose poetry, and, more recently, British Prose Poetry: The Poems without Lines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018; reviewed previously in The Fortnightly Review here). Her collections with Cinnamon Press include Speaking Without Tongues (2010) and The Shared Surface (2013) and she is nearing completion of a third, The Chalk Butterfly.