Driftwood

“a pelican
landed on my shoulder
intensely still
like a story
that hasn’t happened yet”

-A. Molotkov, Punctuation Marks

 

I’m here by the sea to begin my story again, with the pelican. Nightly, it carries to my bedside reports on what has changed, on what has not, on which direction time moves, and whether or not I’m allowed to forget. But its news is static. It hasn’t a pen. This story is mine to unmake.

So I open my notebook for the first time in six months. The pages crackle and fan out from their spine in blank white wings. All around me things are crashing and merging and recreating themselves. I am in the middle of their lesson.

Though the pelican is as hungry as I to start again, it waits on my shoulder, intensely still. It is time, the bird raps with its empty beak into my skull. I need to fly soon; let me.

I write:

“The middle of the story, I’m learning, can be the beginning. Sometimes.”

The pelican seizes me tighter. Its leathery feet are a fist. I cross out the last word, “Sometimes”. The bird unclenches.

“I am again a child kicking through the surf, bleeding from scraped knees. I am an 85-year-old who has finally reached the coast, after a lifetime of driving. I am everything but these hands reaching into the surf, still searching for her body, everything but these hands, this surf.”

Better. Its wings unfold their paper creases and test the wind’s warm thermals.

The air is a jar of salt. The earth below me is an hourglass, sand frozen in its narrows. The day sits all around me exactly as it used to, exactly as it did that morning.

I write:

“The story did not yet have a pelican in it. At that time I was writing a poem about how everyone’s first memory is the sea— the anointment of bathwater or waves, scrub grass, dunes that seem the size of a negligent father but become years later just enough to fill an hourglass. I could not have known the strength of the current. I had only read of undertows. My words had a deadline, an expiration date; I was not thinking of hers, was not thinking I was that father.”

And what will you erase from the story, the pelican asks. My ear flushes raw from its words, from the toothy sea air.

“First, I spend months remembering her name to the point it needs to be forgotten. This is when the pelican arrives, my co-author. It reminds me of her strawberry blonde hair, just like her mother’s, and how she loved to swim out a bit further than her muscles could return. It reminds me of the way she was suddenly as absent as she was moments before present, alive, swimming, calling ‘father, watch!’ across the tops of the waves. It reminds me I was never really watching.”

And why am I here, the pelican returns, weighing down your shoulder, in this new story just beginning.

“You are not,” I write in answer. “First I write you from this story. Then the sea, the salt. I cross out myself as I was and my daughter as she can never be. I erase that poem and its deadline. I am not that morning, that life. I am a man of 33, alone by the sea, with nothing weighing down this shoulder.”

I close the notebook. There has never been a pelican. The sand begins to flow down through its glass tube. I have not wasted my life.

 

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