Hands Like Drowned Stars
LAURA MADELINE WISEMAN
You boat on a brown river. You row with it, rather than against it. The land beside the river sways with grass and lime trees. Low hills rise like lumps of flesh. The sun is thin gold. The air is wet and close. Nothing in the world matters but this: the water offers no breeze. Nor does the speed at which the boat moves. All motion provides the same sensation: heat and birds moving too slowly. A red hat slides by, sits prim on the water like an iceberg. The water roils beneath the boat. Occasionally you pass drains like you’ve seen in manmade campus ponds. Pairs of male swans bob over whatever the student body managed to conquer: the goal post, three dozen bra and panty sets, a bottle of scotch, a handgun, a cell phone that rings.
You can hear it ringing, but cannot reach it, though you try. You stick your arm all the way to the hilt. Press your face into the brown surface. It rings and rings. You give up, but feel below what could be a set of stairs. When you open your eyes, the brown water is gold. You rise, wipe your face on a red hat and listen. The drains make sucking noises and are rimmed in small hairs.
You sit in the middle of the river. Strings are tied to metal loops on the boat. Pelicans rise and fall with wing beats. The driver of the boat, in the front rather than the back, pushes a long pole down and lifts it up again. He puffs on a long, slim cigarette, which emits blue smoke. He wears a green padded vest and his hair flaps in the air. The smoke spins back from his head. The strings shiver. You lick your finger and thrust it into the air to catch the breeze, but the spit cools on your skin, one bubble of saliva slides along your knuckle. You rub your finger into the red hat and watch the green eyeballs of lime trees sway.
May I ask, you start, cough, begin again, May I ask where we’re going? but there is no answer. So you study the hills you pass in the boat. Some emit fine columns of blue smoke. Then passing you are bright orange inner tubes with fat boys in trunks. They lull their tongues at you, but you can’t see their eyes because of the mirrored sunglasses. You reach over to splash them, but a sick lurch in your bowels stops you. With two hands on the rim of the boat, you look over the edge. There below, a pale hand skims the water’s surface. There are more than one, more than ten. Hands wave like stars under the surface. You blink and blink again and yet the hands rush by you like scotch bottles and goal posts heaved overboard. The boys snigger and you look at your own hands ashamed.
You enter choppier water in a series of cannels under the city. The boys splash and make sucking sounds, but having floated away, only their echoes remain. Along the cement walkways you see bra and panty sets wadded up like trophies. Sometimes you can see homeless men with worms tied to strings waiting under bridges. Sometimes you pass by swans stuck in mud or fish with great bloated scales and creamy, blind eyes. They wag dead tails from where they’re beached in silt. Excuse me, you say to the man. Hello? Where are we going? No response. You realize with a start he is not a man at all, but a woman driver. She’s not your mother, but she could be. She’s got large, heavy breasts, which spill against her thick sailor arms. She’s missing one eye and you wonder about a peg leg, about scurvy and syphilis coiling itself into her heart.
You reach into your pocket and find two limes. You place one on the hard wooden bench between you. Take this, you say. You don’t want shingles. Still nothing. The other you bite into like an apple, the tang sliding down your chin and burning the back of your throat. You cough, spit golden seeds into the water. The woman will not acknowledge you or the lime, though the lime rolls towards her. You chew on the hardened flesh of the lime. It has sat in your pockets for weeks. The second lime rolls back to you and you kick it. It bounces against her leather work boot, then rolls into a hole in the bottom of the boat and disappears. You put the red hat on and wish for mirrored sunglasses. Ones where no one could see you cry.
When the lime is gone, you lick your fingers and lean against the boat’s rear plank. It gyrates and lurches, but you absorb the motion, hold it inside you. You try to sing. You tell jokes. You point out another red hat in the water. You talk about your childhood, your mother, being made to stand in the corner with a pelican. You hold your hands out to her, flexed and open. But nothing makes the woman turn to you. She smokes. Her vest flaps in the air. When the river is calm, she strips from the vest and walks into the water, steps into it as if stairs were there below the skim of the water. You see no stairs from where you grip the rim, but you watch her descend seven inches at a time. The last thing to go is a thin plume of smoke.
Back out in the light, the city behind you, you watch pelicans. The boys return, tongues wagging in their mouths like fat worms. One waves a string at you. The string is tied to his finger in a bow. Wetness slides down his face from the sunglasses. You pick up a green padded vest and put it on. It fits perfectly, snug in the right places, loose in the bad ones. There are handguns in the pockets, at least six. You pass another red hat in the water, a swaying bank of grass and trees. You climb to the front of the boat and light a long cigarette that emits blue smoke. You push a pole into the water and pull it out again. Breeze stirs you. You don’t dare study the sucking drains. The hands wave at you like drowned stars. Excuse me, someone says. May I ask where we’re going? There is nothing in this world that could make you turn around and see who sits behind you in the boat.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the recipient of the 2009 Academy of American Poets Award from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is a doctoral candidate and teaches English. Her chapbook My Imaginary (Dancing Girl Press, 2010) was a finalist in four national contests. She is also the author of Ghost Girl, a chapbook forthcoming from Pudding House. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Feminist Studies, MARGIE, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere. Other awards include the Mari Sandoz Award in fiction, the Will Jumper Award in poetry, and five Pushcart Prize nominations. Residences include the Herbert Hoover Artist-in-Residency Program. She holds a BS in English literature and women’s studies from Iowa State University and an MA in women’s studies from the University of Arizona. She reads and writes reviews for Prairie Schooner. Visit her website for mp3s of poems from My Imaginary.