Caught Among the Branches
by Frances Badgett
I wrap Craig in a blanket and hand him tea. He stares out at the coming dawn, his eyes squinting into the fog. The war has broken his left arm, his right leg. He sits uneasily in his chair, and though his bones have long since knitted themselves back together—the war has ended, nothing of it is left—he is still delicate in the crashing world. He can stand neither the brightness of day nor the darkness of night, so we live in a perpetual dawn and dusk, the lights on dimmers, catching the few minutes of air in the summer at this time of day before the sun is at its height.
He sips. We are quiet together. He points out an eagle. A fat crow pecks at a white wrapper on the sidewalk below. “I like this place better.” Our last apartment faced south, all the light. Too much sun, not enough trees. Here we have trees and face north. He is calmer.
He scoots his chair closer to the balcony, the metal scrape makes him jump. I take his hand. Mozart through the open window, the trees are in full leaf. It’s market day, and the ﬁrst farmers begin to arrive, their trucks and vans sliding open, slamming shut. Artful displays of carrots. Stacks of thick greens. We can smell the berries from up here, ﬂoating on the breeze. More trucks arrive, and soon the buskers are warming up, accordions whining. He sips and points again, a clown with balloons hissing them into shapes, creating a bouquet of animals and flowers in bent and blown rubber. I see his hand tense around the cup. We keep breathing.
We have been out twice this week, which is a record. Once to see his mother, once to buy him shoes. We could have ordered online, but he ends up in a fugue state of receiving and returning, receiving and returning, as if perpetually trying out shoes were a way of owning them without commitment. The store was bright, the sunlight blinding, but he barreled through without hyperventilating or wringing his hands.
His mother’s house is curtained and drawn, shaded and quiet. He was calm as she served us soup and small, delicate sandwiches on thin bread. She fully loves the world, and it shows in the way she cuts bread or washes a plate. He can only take her love for an hour before he has to leave, his leg, he says, it strains.
We watch a juggler warm up. Craig picks up oranges from the fruit basket and takes them in his hands. He juggles a bit and stops. Juggles a bit. He sips his tea and smiles up at me, sweet and boyish.
“I entertained kids from the village over there with juggling.” Over there. There’s a tiny ﬂinch as he says it, a sting.
He puts the oranges back, picks up his tea. A breeze wafts up, carrying the smell of popcorn. I read him a poem from my laptop and he nods, listening intently. No one listens the way he does. I chide him that he has extra ears.
He glances up, the sun beginning its ascent. Then something catches his eye. He stands, spilling drops of tea on his robe.
“I just need to go inside.”
Just as he turns, I see one of the clown’s silver helium balloons drift away from its bundle and ﬂoat toward us. Craig slides the patio door closed, sloshing his tea. I watch as the balloon catches in the maple just beyond our balcony. Panicked breath. I watch it bob, its string twisting on the small branches.
There is no reaching it. There is no number you can call to retrieve an object that makes your lover cringe in the windowless bathroom, hugging himself on the ﬂoor, gnawing his knuckles until he draws blood. There is nothing to do but watch it slowly deﬂate. I helplessly reach my arm over our railing, hands ﬂailing.
Days later, it hangs there, limp, a silver afterthought. Even so, he cannot leave the apartment. I sneak Vitamin D into his food, which does no good without the sun. I call his doctor. We have to see the doctor to adjust his meds, and that rustling silver menace glues him to the beige carpet of our condo.
“How about some TV?” Sometimes he can be coaxed into something other than sitting quietly. I read by ﬂashlight. I cook in the glow of my laptop. The lights are dimmer than they’ve ever been.
Violence. Zombies. He enters a trance state. I’m exhausted and pull out my ﬂashlight to read. All night he paces in the living room, his feet disappearing and returning from the kitchen to the balcony, his fear hanging just out of reach in the tree.
And then, one morning, there is only a trace of string. He presses a ﬂat, warm palm to the glass door and slides the door open. A crack at ﬁrst. I feel the breeze. It baptizes our ankles. Then a few inches more, and I can smell the sea air, the sweet after-rain ozone burning off warm pavement. He steps a foot on the balcony. My breath catches.
“The crows have built a nest.”
As if nothing happened. As if we have been out here all along.
I write about loss a lot, and war seems to be my preferred vehicle. Caught Among the Branches is, in a way, a story of anyone who grinds away while stuck in a brief sequence of their lives. The inspiration comes from the Iraq War, and I think about those for whom the war is still present, still happening, over-and-over, a Zapruder film of I.E.D.s and tracer fire. I think of all of us, how we can be propelled back to sadness by a simple reminder. We don’t always need a war for that. We have ungodly violence around us, scarring us, cleaving us from each other, or together, the meaning changing upon context. We are united over loss, usually if it belongs to someone else, the pain too unbearable for bonding and intimacy when it’s yours. For those who survive, who walk in the back door tracking mud across the kitchen, everything is still here. The 7-11 still sells beer and pretzels. The same tattered decorations go up in front of the Presbyterian Church in December. The same bartender serves the same watery beer. Those people who knew the crackle in their veins of near-death are beyond it and not at the same time. Late at night, they feel the shock without awe, the anxious hiss of tinnitus in the wee hours, the caged bird of the heart in the chest. I trace their maps of grief. I don’t know what to call what it is I find there.
Frances Badgett is the editor at K&L Media and the fiction editor of Contrary Magazine. Her work has appeared in Toe Good Poetry, Dead Mule School, Drunken Boat, SmokeLong Quarterly, PIF, Word Riot, Grey Sparrow, and a story of hers is forthcoming in Atticus Review. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.