Umbilicus by Dino Parenti

May I reminisce about life ’til now, dear sister? Sprinkle mementos of youth and folly and all the disquiets without shape or name? After you left the world, I became convinced you took with you the organ I lack, the one that demystifies the great paradoxes. Perhaps I may call upon you to now solve one? There are things that rise before me, just out of view, as I lay here in the deep shade crafting snow angels. Are they stalks or pilings? Blurry evocations of hash marks on a prison wall? Of broken, offset birthday candles? A cowering GI’s view of iron hedgehogs littering the beach on The Longest Day? One of the countless Saturday matinees we watched with Dad in more living rooms than I can recount. Trees are all my mind allows for at the moment. The tang of aspen and cedar. I smell it now. Enchanting, alien Crater Lake. As close to home as anyplace ever was. Remember the cabin and how we crafted entire domains mere inches off the ground? Patches of moss became meadows. Twigs, fallen sequoias. My Thomas the Train keychain, a full-sized locomotive. All things magnified and embellished, because it’s all a trick of the mind, really. Conjuring those tricks is our grandest faculty. And on those endless afternoons, on the patch behind the kitchen beneath the hose bib with the forever leak, we were the true lords of reality, and not the phantom-gods they scared us with every Sunday in our nicest clothes. Focus back then was never the elusive balance of running on ice; every second feeling the inevitable stumble that so many always prophesied looming nearby, and uh-oh, I believe I’m slipping again…

…into childhood?

The world, it is steam and cast iron and copper dungaree rivets. Though we won’t be born for another hundred years, it’s as familiar as the Oregon cabin we summered in. Dad, attired in smeared overalls instead of accounting shirtsleeves, cheek swollen by chew instead of Doublemints, leans from the shadow of an oil derrick to bark orders at dark-skinned laborers. From a flat rail car I watch this, moored to an iron wheelchair, my misshapen legs deflated under a gingham blanket. My maladroit nature punishing me, his voice echoes. A girl would’ve been more graceful. His loving tease. I wonder if the rumble I feel is a looming gusher or the voicing of his discontent…

…finally confessing something: as an adult and a man of science, I was made privy to the power of psilocybin intoxication. Those mind-altering mushrooms that sprout in the droppings of white-tail deer, used by shamans to travel the stars without boosters. That they also manifest lightheadedness and hampered coordination was no deterrent. That was my youth! Because of bad footing and orientation, all my play took place six inches from my eyes, usually on the ground. Maybe my bones failed to develop. Maybe it was my ears. Whatever the reasons, it taught me of the deceptive sanctuary of the earth. How it can bolster and shelter as well as swallow and kill. Is it why I feel unaccepted by it? Feel that it’s always fought me? Doesn’t want me? How else do you explain those fire ants bursting from it to sear me with bites in the spring of ’92? Or the rattlesnake hiding beneath the chaparral as I dug trenches for my little soldiers to fight in? Or the sinkhole on the Friday before the start of fifth grade that swallowed the garden shed as I played not ten feet away from it? And yet as I grew too old to play in its mud, I never lost the pull of the comforts of pretend, though sometimes, when the world’s its quietest and the hole inside me burrows the deepest, I feel cheapened as an autonomous being for retreating into the niches of fantasy, just to fill the void. Is this the best my brains can do? My supposed genius brain? Because my sense of the poetic and the abstract was woeful, I was slotted into engineering. The way people saw the meaning behind paintings, that’s how I saw the numbers. Yes, the fit was a good one, one of the few that ever was. So I solved the equations, called forth the theories, and crafted a ship that is self sustaining, and can orbit the Earth in perpetuity. Yes, the mushrooms have helped to afford me such visions, but they exact favors in return that render my brain as ungainly as my feet, leading to a slip of temporal cognizance now and again. A good word for it, slip. A smooth, sliding transition from one plane to the next…

…where I skulk along a cobbled riverside, this time on hale legs. When my arms sweep into view I notice my skin, darker than my carpish, Portlandian complexion, pulled taut by the half-draw of an arrow nocked along sinew string…

…which isn’t like the streamlined fiberglass bow dad taught us on, but his drilled principles are the same: lock stance, inhale slowly, draw, aim, exhale slowly, release. Remember what he’d say? Whenever you feel adrift and without place, root your feet and fire a few arrows across the backyard stream where…

…dried salmon and overturned pots of pond lily seeds litter the shoreline. On the opposite bank, the charred, splintered sweathouse where our grandfather cured us of our winter ills smolders against a stand of spruce. Indians. Yurok. Our people. Their bodies bob and drift in the soft current. The foliage stirs. Before I can react, muzzle fire spits across the water. Balls tear into my body, and I fall. My shredded legs twitching, bare and chestnut like my arms as I sink into the shoreline silt, fading rapidly…

…into the moment on the rim, before the launch, just after dropping a good dose. More than one colleague already citing my dislocation, which I wave off because I must anchor myself to the clearest view of the launch, somewhere along the edge where the trees don’t grow. Still another tells me I’m too close, but I answer that I must feel what the indigenous felt. The connection. The oneness. I demanded as such, even during the planning, the designing. When they made their case for ion propulsion, I stood my ground and told them that other worlds lacked roads and places with names. Besides, ion propulsion was incommensurate with interstellar travel—that what we truly needed was proximity to home. Not on the earth, perhaps, but in view of it, and in the end they agreed. Because the fear of disconnection and dislocation finally, truly pierced their souls. Because they already knew enough. Knew how it will all end and when. That once it happens, we’ll have less than a generation left together. An eternity when compared to you and I, who only had an hour together after sharing a womb for three-quarters of a year. Before they cut us out, and a choice was put…

…in my feminine hands, bronzed by firelight, I piled another stone upon a cairn. Someone I loved, felled on a bison hunt. Without warning the night erupts brighter than the hottest midday, and the ensuing crack blows me off my feet. Sprawled against boulders atop the butte’s edge, I watch beyond my laden belly and scorched legs as Mount Mazama, cloven in two, topples into the crimson horizon before a great geyser of fire that will, in a thousand years, yield Crater Lake. As archipelagos of burning trees plummet into a mile-wide lava flow that snakes toward me, a lucid notion breaches forth: the Yellowstone Caldera will be orders-of-magnitude grander…

Night Operations

“Night Operations” (image via Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)

…than this roar. How I wish you were here, sister. To see how I’ve grown. To see what I’ve built, about to be heaved from the hidden base east of Mt. Scott. I won’t be joining them. Because I’m unfinished. Because despite the hardships, despite the ceaseless void that was once you, I still yearn to be one with the mud. Down here, one day soon when there will be no further need of subterfuge or veiling, I’ll live my remaining days unclothed. Not even the handfuls that initially survive will bat a lash. Nakedness has always been the worse. At pools. At the gym. First sex. How does one explain the clumsy prosthetic that stops the depression on my right where the ribs are no more? Where an abdominal scar runs from crotch to base of neck, like the equator on a fractured planet? How does one explain that Mom and Dad had a choice to make—that the kidneys, liver, lungs, and heart could only belong to one brain, and they chose the boy over the girl because of silly, antiquated notions of surname perpetuation. Because the world was so grievously lacking in Smiths, lacking in mercy, lacking in light. Ah…the light! There it goes now, rising up and up beyond the rim, the quasar glow of thrusters and the fleeting umbilicus of white-grey smoke under it, the light washing out the shadow of the crater’s rim. The snow beneath me swells and brightens, and my predicament is assessed. Amazing that despite my fully spiraled lower half, there’s no pain. The projections I envisioned earlier—the trees, the candles, the pilings—are the femurs, the tibiae, the fibulae piercing flesh and denim, pointing to the sky like irregular lodge poles. The forest mere inches from my eyes. The sum of my tumble down the southern rim. My colleagues high above, able to see me now, cry out my name, asking if I’m alive, informing others that I’d slipped, which is the only thing that could’ve happened, correct? But you know the truth, sister. Settling into the loam, tracing the rocket’s contrail as it hits escape velocity and rakes the sky, I smile and imagine you here with me, building tiny log cabins out of pine needles.

When not scribbling twisted musings into spiral notebooks, photographing the odd puddle or junk pile, or building classy furniture, Dino Parenti earns a little scratch drawing buildings. He still longs to touch the stars.