I Was Trying to Describe What it Feels Like, page 1
I WAS TRYING TO DESCRIBE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE
Copyright © 2017 by Noy Holland
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
“Rooster Pollard Cricket Goose,” “Swim for the Little One First,” “Fire Feather Mendicant Broom,” and a portion of “What Begins with Bird” first appeared in Conjunctions; “Chupete” in Web Conjunctions; “Absolution” and “Boulevard” in The Quarterly; “At Last the Escalade” in Antioch; “Monocot” in Kenyon Review; “Jericho” in Denver Quarterly; “Time for the Flat-Headed Man” in Open City; “Milk River” and “Pachysandra” in New York Tyrant; “Blood Country” in Western Humanities Review; “Pemmican” in Milan Review; “Love’s Thousand Bees” in Unsaid; “Luckies Like Us” in Columbia; “I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like” and “Perihelia” in No Token; “Instructions for Xu Yuan Flying,” “So Says the Post Mistress,” “Music of the Old,” “Querido,” “Courtship,” “Matrimonial,” “Put on Your Crowded Body,” “Hunger Is the First Emotion,” and “Cuernavaca” in Notre Dame Review; “Once I Wrote a Story” in Big Big Wednesday; “Tally” in Epoch; “Blue Angels,” “Vegas,” “Home Improvement,” and “Sinew” in Story Quarterly; “Not So the Donkeys” in Cosmonaut; “Search and Rescue” in Catapult; “Duende” in Agni; “Ringneck,” “Bitty Cessna,” and “King for a Day” in Fence.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Holland, Noy, 1960- author. | Holland, Noy, 1960- Orbit.
Title: I was trying to describe what it feels like : new and selected stories / Noy Holland.
Description: Berkeley, CA : Counterpoint Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2016040258 | ISBN 9781619028463 (hardback)
Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Short Stories (single author). | FICTION / Literary.
Classification: LCC PS3558.O3486 A6 2017 | DDC 813/.54--dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016040258
Cover design by Kelly Winton
Interior design by Megan Jones
2560 Ninth Street, Suite 318
Berkeley, CA 94710
Printed in the United States of America
Distributed by Publishers Group West
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
for my children
ALSO BY NOY HOLLAND
The Spectacle of the Body
What Begins with Bird
Swim for the Little One First
SEARCH AND RESCUE
AT LAST THE ESCALADE
SO SAYS THE POSTMISTRESS
ROOSTER POLLARD CRICKET GOOSE
HUNGER IS THE FIRST EMOTION
FIRE FEATHER MENDICANT BROOM
SWIM FOR THE LITTLE ONE FIRST
PUT ON YOUR CROWDED BODY
WHAT BEGINS WITH BIRD
LOVE’S THOUSAND BEES
ONCE I WROTE A STORY
I WAS TRYING TO DESCRIBE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE
TIME FOR THE FLAT-HEADED MAN
MUSIC OF THE OLD
INSTRUCTIONS FOR XU YUAN FLYING OR THE LIFTING FORCE LET GO
LUCKIES LIKE US
NOT SO THE DONKEYS
KING FOR A DAY
LAST OF THE SWEET
At night, we kept watch for turtles. We made our bed one bed to lie across together, our pillows pushed up in the window we had popped the screen from. There was a broken place in our yard, and in our yard, our garden. We could lean up onto our pillows at night and watch out over the garden.
This was in the yellow house; it was swallowed up by trees. Vines grew into the kitchen.
This was the summer our father left. Our mother lay at the back of the house.
There were trains at night, and whippoorwills, and the sounds our mother made at night went out across our yard. We moved Mother’s bed to the window—so she could see the sun and moon, so she could see the garden.
We let the animals harvest the garden—the mule deer and the whistle pigs, the rabbits nosed through our broken place—the things you have to kill to catch.
It was easy, catching turtles. We leaned into the light from our window. My brother whistled a marching call to tease the turtles two by two: Sugar and Vernon, Oscar and Doll. That was what Orbit had named them. Every turtle we caught, we caught again. We carved their names with a crooked nail in the soft shells of their bellies. Our names, we carved in the trees.
We named our bird dog Bingo then. Our father had named her Jane. We let her come sleep in our room with us, in our beds, underneath our bedsheets, her head on Orbit’s pillow. We kept Bingo’s tail in our pockets. Our turtles, we kept in a wooden box, or we let them loose in our mother’s room before we carried them back out into our woods so we could catch them over again. We kept their box beneath our bed so we could hear them if they moved at night.
We heard Mother sing at night—Mother Goose and birdcalls. Whenever she was singing, when we could not help but hear her singing, Orbit flung the bedsheet back and went out through the window. I went to Mother with saltines, Popsicles, to feed her. She pulled the bedsheet up across her mouth, held it below her eyes, and danced, veiled—her arm dipping above the sheet, her hand fluttering out at the end of it. I heard her hips twist.
I heard the field mice, shredding her clothes, in the dresser.
When Orbit came back with his bike from the lake, I sneaked to our bed and pretended to sleep—so he could wake me, so we could hunt for turtles. Some nights he did not wake me. He curled under his sheet at the foot of our bed, and I would feel our beds rock; I would hear the box springs shudder and creak and our bird dog—curled up at the edge of our bed—moaning, her head underneath Orbit’s pillow. I pulled the sheet over my head to listen—to his hand pumping his tiny prick, to him breathing.
Orbit brought jars of tadpoles from the lake, scooped from the weedy shallows, and frogs, gigged and bleeding, he tried in the coming days to heal. He sewed up the frogs with needle and thread, patched their lesser wounds with gauze, practiced amputations.
Without Mother, we broke rules.
We ate with our fingers, if we ate at all. We said, Fingers were made before forks.
We put tadpoles underneath our beds with the World Books, the box of turtles.
We popped the screen from our window—so we could lean out over our windowsill so we could watch for turtles. When our w
THIS IS WHAT was; this is what can have been.
WE WERE QUEEN Mother and Orbit, we said, the summer she lay at the back of the house, the autumn, the spring. Our father was other places. Our father had sat with his hat at his feet, useless in the kitchen. When he stood up, he stood up walking, moving to the door.
We did not try to stop him.
We do not try to stop him.
We are Queen Mother and Orbit of the night birds and the terrapin, of the tubers and of the leaving trees.
We are a ruckus of arms in the head-high weeds, bent-kneed, dropping to stalk on our fingertips between the rows of corn. In the squash, we drop to our hands and knees, to our bellies—elbowing, dragging our legs, too loud in our moving sounds to hear past ourselves for prey. We watch down the rows for the beans to swing; we keep an eye on Bingo, who is standing on the windowsill, watching over us from our room. We have her broken-off tail in our pockets, and rabbit’s foot in our pockets, and the crooked nail we name them with—our Sugar, our Vernon, our Doll.
Oh, we are so lucky! So grown, how blessed, such seers!
We stop in the dirt to listen.
We know Mother watches for us. We are sure she is listening for us. There are strays, after all, wilding fields, and fire—and we have seen houses splintered by wind lift like leaves from their yards.
We listen for the closing up, the hinged, hydraulic sound of the keeping shells of the turtles. Orbit howls and I, Mother and I, watch him—cat-backed, my brother, a boneless pounce of boy into a sprawling thicket. He thrashes through the vines and leaves; we see a flash of scrawny arm, a ratty patch of hair. A sorrowful moan leaves Bingo, her havocked, swallowed trill. We see my brother’s legs jerk straight, Mother and Bingo and I—then nothing. He lies with his feet poked out of the beans as though he has been grown over.
“It’s Sugar,” he explains to me, and hands off the turtle.
A GREEN MOON is the best moon, Orbit claims, for turtles.
Our mother claims in a green moon, as rare by far as a blue moon, our father comes home and carries her out and, hand over hand, runs her up the flagpole in our yard.
We hear her pleading with the Pope at night, blind-gigging geese at night.
We have our Gander in our yard, our trough for frogs and tadpoles.
Sugar, we have, and Oscar—soon—to knock at our legs in our pockets.
Orbit claims that if they would let you, held open against your ear, you could hear the sea in Sugar, in Oscar, and so on—in turtles we have not yet caught to let us listen to them there.
Sugar is cool underneath, where the shell smooths and smells to me of potatoes. Our potatoes, left to freeze, will grow hard as bone in winter, food for vole and shrew. Turnips we grow for their slick skins swelling in the press of earth; beets for their rough and knuckly peel we peel back in bed with our kitchen knife in our room I was first to be born in, our yellow house stooped and winded as far from town as from the sea.
hangers to mend the fence,
Not the sea I hear in Sugar, but my brother saying penknife, Orbit saying saltines to put on the list for supper. But town is a long and, even in the cool, blistering walk through the hollow.
We keep near her, Mother on a good day taking toast and tea, a day when the sound she makes at night is not Mother Goose but Mother, the words we know of her, her calling over the windowsill my brother and me by name.
NIGHT TO NIGHT, day to dark, very night of very night, Orbit recites to the undershells as white as the buffed soles of our feet come bootless to the turtles. We learn in the dark with our fingers what, with a crooked nail and a kitchen knife, by candlelight we have named them.
We take our time to name them. We lie with our chins hanging past the foot of our twin beds. Turtles are shy when they open, the swung-down half of a moon of shell a ramp the kept inside of them might lift up and walk out over.
In me, also, is a flap of shell—hinged, according to Orbit, open when I squat to pee, and when I am finished peeing, drawn shut accordingly ahead of the hooked and wrinkled neck the size of Orbit’s thumb and mine. The skin of a turtle’s neck—as the skin of our mother’s neck—is fit to be shed at the side of a road, our mother not a mother to sing before this jack-in-a-box of cheeks rouged with the skin of beets we peel to pop out when we want her.
And we want so much of Mother.
In bed, the dark between our sheets keeps the smell of lumped dirt, of crops we have left, of Mother—if we touch her before we leave, or when we come back to her from the garden. We smell ourselves of the garden. We smell of Bingo—who smells of her kill she has left in the woods and who sleeps her dog’s sleep with her head underneath Orbit’s pillow.
Orbit’s pillow, since our father left, has become our dog’s pillow; Bingo’s name we changed from the name we never liked all along. The nights since then, since our father left, Orbit curls at the foot of his bed, thinking I am sleeping.
But I am not sleeping.
His boy’s breath I am of him and of the fallen dark with him. I am the keeping sheath of him, slipping on his penis.
I see him reach his hand out. I see him turn his hand to let our Bingo lick it clean.
WE TRY TO lure the turtles out with shiny slugs and straight-pinned flies, with the luck of rabbit’s foot saved frozen from the garden.
We are lucky when they open.
They are so shy.
We try to pry them out with kitchen knives and pliers, to burn them out with candles, mute things, toothless. Do they know it when we sleep? Do they rise up in their old homes and walk out in our room at night?
But we are not sleeping.
Maybe they dream.
Might it be not the sea we hear, but some lurching yellow dream we wake to keep from dreaming?
I am no weak sister gone to kneeling through the house at night to harvest lint from carpets, to polish and to clean. I am not afraid to sit darkly among our things and in the room where Mother sleeps, or is not sleeping, to sing, or am not singing.
But I do not sleep with Mother, shall not when she lifts the sheets and pats our father’s place to lie against her in their bed.
Our beds are one bed, my brother’s bed and my bed. We lie across together.
But I would go, should Mother call—between this room and that, between sister and daughter. Or if she does not call, I will go to sit and watch her dreaming.
YOU WILL KNOW the place, should you ever come, as soon as you have seen it. You will see it from the dirt road—the house leaning, and leaning, slumped—from the narrowing road from the hollow.
Should the stone in the road you are walking past lift up on its legs and move, pick it up. It may be Vernon.
The spotted dog is Bingo, her paws webbed for swimming.
The goosenecked goose is Gander, hitched with a rope to the trailer hitch.
And the swaybacked mare—what of her? She lay in the grass behind the barn that stands beyond the slumping house and squeezed out her dead filly.
And of the mother?
And of the father—what shall we say of him?
IT WILL BE done as soon as the father comes or not—until he comes. The father will come by truck or train as fathers betimes are wont to come. Or by some flight of fancy.
Or he will not come.
Or he did not go, and shall not go, but stayed in Tuscaloosa.
Tuscaloosa is a good town. There are fathers in Tuscaloosa. There are no cars in Tuscaloosa, no guns, no books, no telephones, no telephone book to finger through waiting for dark to come.
Or do you not wait for it?
I was born in Ohio. My mother was someone, chances are, I never might have known.
Do you know Oneida? Would you take my word for what I would tell you about Oneida?
Ask my mother.
Is it pretty somewhere near Oneida? Is there a boy you know named Orbit living on the outskirts there?
Ask yourself any old thing you might think of to want to ask yourself, or not to want to ask yourself. Will it be done, for instance, when it is done? In a heartbeat, will it? In a whimper?
Old Mother Hubbard lived in a cupboard covered with pudding and pie.
Who saw her die?
Who saw her die?
It was I, said the fly, with my little teensy eye.
Who caught her blood?
Who caught her blood?
It was I, said the fish, it was I, in my pretty silver dish.
WHEN DADDY COMES, Orbit claims, I will show him.
I will show how—in the tree, turning above the dogs—we keep the filly safely there to show him when he comes. The lean-to, I will show him. I will show him the broken place where the animals crawl into the yard.
Do you know where Turkey is?
How does a turnstile work?
Turtles have been toothless for one-five-zero, zero-zero-zero years.
This one is Oscar. Oscar, meet Doll. Daddy and Doll, meet Oscar.
After a single mating, Doll can lay fertile eggs for years.
Will they all at a time break open?
She will not show them. Our Doll will not show me even her belly still.
And if she is not with them?
If our Doll is old and sick and nodding by the road one night, who will there be to show them? And which way goes to the paved road and on to the yonder sea?
I have not seen it. I have not seen the sea.
I see crows.
I know there are buzzards banking turns up there.
I KEEP THE flies from Momma. It is my job to keep them from her. The sky is yellow. The fields and the fields and the fields are green. The lean-to is blue. My name is Orbit.