Into the Air
It is tomorrow’s reading I have on my mind as I fumble with the hasp of the goat yard gate. I’m all packed, just need to crack the ice on the trough and toss more hay into the rack before I head to the station for the 11am to Penn. It had seemed a good idea those months back when the journal launch party was announced, but now I’m wondering what possessed me. I loathe standing on a stage, sending my written words from the page where they belong into the air where they don’t. They’re not birds, I think, pushing the gate closed behind me.
“It’s brave of you, Mom,” Emma had said from the Brooklyn life where she’s expecting me to arrive in some eight hours. She knows the restaurant in Greenwich Village, says it’s nice, she’ll take me there tomorrow, sit up front. I think, though, that she is attaching that “brave of you” to the actual piece of writing, born as it was of a transition out of parenthood, of the move to the Blue Ridge, that starting-anew where the sky is big and raggedy-edged over the mountains. We’d get a puppy, throw bigger and bigger sticks across the field. And tug at the thistle, barbed and pernicious as the memories I try to weed away to give light to more carefree petals—the wild daisies, the birdfoot violets. Maybe this year the growth will be less thorny, less tall, more manageable. But today the fields are still brown under my feet, though the spring equinox has come and gone.
I slide the heavy plank of a door along its track and step into the barn. The three goats are in there—the new kid, the one-year-old wether, and matronly Gretel who takes charge in their curtilage. We share a birthday, the two of us, which is also tomorrow. I am turning 55, and Gretel would be turning 8 if she weren’t dead on the barn floor. I am not expecting this, though I’m also not surprised. She has been unsteady, and I’ve had the vet out, who pointed to the brutal winter and nutritional problems. I feel as I did as a mother, unfit to the task of knowing how to care for these creatures, to keep them healthy and happy. This is the second year I’ve had them; I should be getting it right by now. Her eyes are wide open. No sign of pain on her face, no struggle in her limbs. It seems as if she has just fallen over. I lead the younger goats out and slide the door closed. Then I fill a galvanized bucket with water from the well and pile fresh hay under the eave of the barn, hoping it’ll stay dry. There is a gray mist that has been clinging to the mountaintops in the west.
You were a good goat, Gretel, I think as I make my way back across the fields. Because she was and because I’m thinking she’s left me a birthday gift: an excuse to not go up for the reading. But, no, Amtrak tells me there’s a train tomorrow, one that’ll get me to New York in time, and I can’t think of any logical reason that Gretel’s end-of-life rites should take two days, no matter what it is we’re supposed to do. “What are we supposed to do?” my husband, Jon, asks when I tell him what’s happened. Neither of us has ever had a dead goat before, so we don’t know. I call on a neighboring farmer, and she suggests an “air burial.” Which, she tells me, is just what I think it is. “It’s the most natural way,” she says, and I say that to Jon, who is not an easy sell, because he liked Gretel too, and he doesn’t think it’s respectful to have carrion birds tearing her to pieces. But we come up with a high spot on the property that will distance us from it, that we won’t need to walk by any time soon, and we go out together and move her there in our truck and leave her just as the storm comes bearing down. A clear day is predicted for tomorrow, so the turkey vultures should be out again, sailing lazily on wind currents over the pastures, looking for carcasses of the no longer livestock. I will be gone before sunrise, though.
“Emma,” I say, calling my daughter from the train, “we’re a little delayed, but I’ll be there in time. I’m not going to read at the event, though. I’ve decided I just want to listen to the others. I’ll see you soon.” I get no argument from her, because I’m speaking to her voicemail. Decision having been made, the butterflies in my stomach go leaden and become that sinking feeling that comes from being a wimp. But I can nap, in any case, which is a need, given that I was up most of the night either with guilt over Gretel or anxiety over the reading. When I find Emma waiting at the station, she wishes me a happy birthday and tells me she’s sorry about the goat, and there is no mention of my inability to do the thing that I have come all this way to do.
We walk to the restaurant and find the reception is just getting underway, and copies of the journal are everywhere, open on tables and tucked in crooks of arms. It’s the Mom Egg Review, which publishes a lot of poetry and flash pieces about motherhood mainly written by New Yorkers, judging by the crowd here. I go to tell the editor that I have decided not to read, and she is nice about it, though she looks a bit confused, and she hands me the program that I am listed in. There are four groups the way it’s set up and no real announcements, so I can be slippery about it, just not get up. We squeeze onto a bench right up next to the stage, one of the only places two people might fit together, and we order wine and beet salads and catch up on life. Emma has been in New York for a few years, trying to be an artist, trying to be happy. The piece I have written for Mom Egg is mostly about her when it’s not about me, about trying to get teenage girls past depression and anorexia and then running off to the mountains to try to forget. She sits and reads it, though she’s read it before, and then she hugs me so hard I know that I will be getting up to read it for her from the stage with the others who let their words fly off the pages, too. And I do, and I survive.
It is dark by the time Jon and I return home from the train station the next day, but he pauses still at the nearest spot to where we laid out Gretel. “There were four or five of those birds on the fence this afternoon,” he says. He doesn’t call them vultures, but he doesn’t either sound disgusted. The sun is strong the next day, and I find some birdfoot violets when I’m out walking with the dog. She pulls on the leash when we get near Gretel’s hill, so I take her back home and sit on the deck that overlooks the Blue Ridge. And I watch the big birds in the distance landing out of sight for a time, then one by one heading off into the air.—Jane Harrington
For children’s and YA author Jane Harrington, the transition to creative non-fiction mirrored her arrival in the Blue Ridge foothills in 2008. “I thought it would be simple,” said the winner of the Local Flavor category, “but I needed to step back and get an MFA and really immerse myself in the literary world.”
She found her footing in the Albemarle area, which had a “very artistic spirit” that gave Harrington a chance to adjust away from life in northern Virginia and the “surprisingly easy” youth publication process. She enrolled in Carlow University’s low-residency MFA program, joined VCCA as a writing fellow, and “began re-reading things I love and trying to figure out why they’re great.”
Harrington credits the completion of her winning essay, “Into the Air,” to her time at VCCA. “It’s great to have that creative space and be forced to sit at the desk all day and have no distractions,” she said.
The artist’s meditative approach led guest judge Jane Alison to call Harrington’s story “a reflective portrait of a late-fledgling artist, delicately interweaving the shifts of her inner world with those of the natural world around her.”
Hard work is paying off for the writer, who recently learned one of her short stories had been accepted by Chautauqua Literary Journal. “This [win] coming on the heels of that is really motivating,” she said. “It’s the first real success I’ve had.”
As Harrington continues to write about Irish famine and local histories,“I’m happy to be a part of this,” she said. “I’m proud of doing so well in the contest and want this to feel like home. It’s a nice way to be involved in the literary community.”—E.D.
The Weight of Departure
It is past 1am. Gabriel is looking down at me from his perch on the bed while Nicollet and Rachel whisper something to each other in the shadows on the floor. The four of us are sitting in Nicollet’s bedroom. The clock is ticking. Gabriel leans over from the bed. “We should do something so we always remember this,” he says. It was supposed to be a party, but I’m too tired. Tomorrow I leave home for good.
I close my eyes and think back to one moment last summer in this same room. I’m in an old night shirt of Nicollet’s pulled taut over my stomach. I have a dirty paper towel in my hand, and I keep spraying Windex on the window and wiping it with the dirty towel and looking surprised when the window is never clean. On the opposite side of the room, Nicollet strokes white paint onto her bedroom walls, whitewashing her lush pink childhood with a clean coat.
Back then, it seemed like it was the summer everything was changing. In the following months, Nicollet would ditch pop for punk and get a hot musician boyfriend, my mom would leave Connecticut for a job in Virginia, and I would try to come to terms with the inevitable moving truck.
I open my eyes and look up at Gabriel. I say, “I don’t think there’s anything memorable to do.” I lean on Nicollet who is beside me in a sleeping bag on the floor. Now she is silent.
“I’m thirsty,” Rachel says. Her sleeping bag rustles and she is above us. In the dark, she is only dangling corkscrew curls and darkened nighttime eyes that look like black holes. The two of us stopped speaking after The Argument a couple months ago, but this night we’re both pretending it never happened.
Gabriel pops off the bed and announces, “Well, I want more pie,” and somehow we’re all going down the stairs. We’re looking into the refrigerator. Gabriel has a pumpkin pie out on the counter and then he’s cutting it open, the pie that he baked to bring to this sad little party. He hands each of us a slice. I check the clock over the stove and it says two.
“Do you still like the White Stripes?” I ask Rachel. Since The Argument, music is one of the few safe topics we have.
“Yeah, sure,” she says and she smiles. I’m so glad that she’s speaking to me, I smile too.
In ninth grade, Rachel and I bonded over our pasts as failed drama kids and forgettable musicians. We traded books, punk albums, vintage dresses, and sarcasm. We had this dream of living together in New York as starving artists (with a cat and a bird). If I felt more awake, if I weren’t leaving, I would fight to fix us.
The four of us stagger upstairs. “We ought to do something important,” Gabriel says, but instead we just play a game of truth or dare fractured by snippets of familiar stories: “Hey Nicollet, do you remember that time we ran around your backyard naked?” Despite scheming to stay up all night, we fall asleep.
In the morning, Rachel leaves early. She has some orchestra concert that she doesn’t really care about, but that she feels compelled to attend. She’s trying show the other kids they can’t scare her off. As the percussionist for a string ensemble, she has something to prove. On her way out she says, “I wore the Sex Pistols tee-shirt you gave me for my birthday one day at a rehearsal. Nobody got it.”
I say, “Look at you, bringing punk to the masses.” In the morning she is slightly sloppy, with bed head and a freckled nose shining in the crack of light through the open door. She looks more forlorn than she ever has before, and I find myself saying, “We should talk.”
“We should. I love you, Anna Banana.” Then she’s gone, and it’s only Gabriel, Nicollet, and I.
“Was it good she was here?” Nicollet asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
We sit around the kitchen table and eat cinnamon rolls. “I tried to make them like your mom does, Anna,” Nicollet’s mother says. I feel like she’s missing the point. I’m moving back in with my mother, not leaving her.
I feel awkward just sitting there so I stand, saying, “This was great, but I should go…home.” I push my chair in and walk to the door. Nicollet and I have an understanding that I will stop by a little later when I leave for good, but we hug now anyway. Her arms lock around me and I notice that after all these years she still smells like strawberries. We’ve been friends for eight years, but we both know that we’ll be bad at keeping in touch.
Gabriel follows me outside. He trips as he tries to tug on one lime green sneaker, but he rights himself with a grace that I envy. “Can I walk you home?” he asks. He looks at me with big blue-green eyes.
He takes my hand, and we walk the block to my house. We probably look like lovers on a morning stroll, but Gabriel is more into women’s fashion than women.
“The morning I moved from Vermont, I woke up at five and walked every street in my neighborhood until I had them all memorized. We should do something like that before you leave.” Sometimes, I find Gabriel sprawled out on his bedroom floor making abstract maps on paper. He names the tumbled streets after his friends and words he likes and places he wishes he could go. It is easy to picture a younger version of Gabriel tracing a final map in his head of the streets he had always known.
After an awkward pause, I tell him, “I’m not sure that’s how I want to say goodbye.”
“I want to explore, but going to college is really scary,” he says. “It’s just so strange that we’re both leaving home.” He makes it sound tragic and I don’t know how to respond. “Whatever we do we aren’t going to be the same people anymore, so it seems like we should do something special. So we don’t forget.”
“I guess,” I say, but I just want to go back to Nicollet’s old pink room and lie on the floor and whisper stories about people who can do magic. Together, we could laugh at the way it feels to be young.
When we reach the house, the moving truck looms like a massive metal alien. My dad wades through its stomach, the contents of our lives pushed up around his sides. Gabriel and I stop in front of the house. There is still a sun carved in the woodwork over the doorway, half painted yellow. It was like that when we moved in and we always meant to finish it.
Gabriel and I go up to my parents’ bedroom. There are no belongings in the house, nothing in the master bedroom. The drapes have been taken off the windows and the light pours in without warming. My dad and I moved the bed out yesterday and the floor is coated in dust bunnies.
“This is just horrible,” he says. He says it in his snootiest voice, and despite my exhaustion I’m embarrassed. We hunt around the house for the vacuum, and Gabriel hauls it up to the bedroom wheezing and cursing. He turns it on in the center of the room, and there is so much dust that mounds of it take flight.
“Look,” Gabriel says, “countries, populations of dust. We should name them something. That one could be ‘Cat Island’ and the biggest could be ‘Dog Island.’”
I take the vacuum cleaner from him and I decimate countries. Then Gabriel and I sit down propped against opposite walls.
I lean my head back against the wall, and I’m coated in sunlight so bright that I can barely open my eyes. This light from the windows streams around our bodies. The glowing particles of dust flare like tiny burning suns and circle our heads. For a few moments, we inhabit this cosmos of our accidental making. There are no clocks ticking, and we float silently in our own glowing world. Gabriel stands to go with a soft wave of his hand. It’s not until the dust settles that I sense that I’ve been left alone in the empty room.—Anna Hennigan
Though she’s only 16 years old, youth category winner Anna Hennigan is no stranger to storytelling. “My parents used to read to me before I could talk, and when I was two or three I started babbling stories to myself to fall asleep,” she said. “When I got older I started writing them down.”
Hennigan grew up in Connecticut and spent half-days at an art school for creative writing. Her winning essay, “The Weight of Departure,” was the first she wrote after moving to Charlottesville last year.
“I took AP English, and my teacher asked us to write a memoir for class,” said the rising CHS senior. “I think it’s easier [to write about old friends] now that I’ve had a year and they’ve become more fictional. You don’t feel badly exploiting their different sides.”
Judge Jane Alison praised Hennigan’s honesty, describing the piece as “impressive and moving” with “strong sensory details” and a “sharp edge throughout.”
The “young writer to watch” plans to sharpen her skills with a CHS class in creative writing this fall. “And I’m going to Governor’s School this summer—tomorrow, actually,” Hennigan said. “It’s all just so exciting.”—E.D.
Bulletproof glass will resist three to four rounds fired by a high-caliber weapon. This piece of trivia sustained those of us who worked behind the transparent barrier every day in Saudi Arabia. It was a dangerous country, they told us. But the government would spend its tax dollars to protect us. The life of a diplomat was worth more than many others.
During my training in Washington, D.C., I watched video footage of a suicide bomber detonating himself inside an Embassy waiting room. A Consular officer saw a commotion through the window, peeking through the blinds right before the bomb went off. The shock of the explosion sent her flying backwards, but the window held. In another video, however, a bomb blast sent the glass shooting out of its frame in one piece. It remained intact as it rocketed backwards, but it would have killed anyone behind it.
Knowing the limits of the material, we were told, would help us to survive. The extra seconds the glass bought us from cross-fire would give us time to find cover, or, if we were in a car, to reverse direction. I never knew if these arguments were terribly practical. I figured that if someone wanted to kill me, they could figure out a way. It didn’t matter whether I was in D.C. or the middle of the Saudi desert.
I spent my working days sitting behind a panel of thick laminate. I interviewed prospective Saudi tourists, sending hundreds on their way to satisfying vacations in the fabled land of Disney. I listened to the pleas of Americans re-applying for passports lost in the devilish washing machine. The staff of the minuscule office, from every corner of the Arab world, became my United Nations, a group of hardy souls doing Uncle Sam’s work in the Kingdom.
It is rare to have a job where you interact with the full range of society. Government offices are the last great hurdle for the upper class. The DMV is no respecter of persons. Our visa waiting room became the Saudi social mixing pot. Bankers in pinstripe silk robes sat next to confused students with barely memorized sheets of paper from American universities. Within this contained space, I, the Consular officer, adjudicated their cases, sending some to the joy of American life and others into the despair of visa rejection.
I have often wondered if horror movies exist because we think someone will judge us. Since we no longer allow God to winnow out the chaff, we’ve imagined a host of monsters to take His place. The more gruesome the killing, the more satisfied is our sense of aggrieved justice. Evil won’t die as long as it lives inside of us.
The visa interviews went on and on as the Saudi sun set and rose. Every day I sat in the same uncomfortable chair, propping my elbows on the counter ledge so I could hear people’s explanations through the reinforced window. Over my months of service, my Arabic sharpened to the point that I convinced many Saudis I had a Lebanese mother. I knew the high school kids’ slang, bartering with them over forgotten transcripts.
Halfway through one mediocre Tuesday, I pulled up the case file of a young South Asian man. He was unexceptional in every way, just another potential tourist. Walking up to my window, he revealed an air of uncommon sobriety, at odds with his culture’s jovial public demeanor.
He slid a page of photocopied paper under the metal slot. It was a letter informing him of the death of his U.S. citizen father. The message was dated the past week. I stared back at him. He had a dull, lifeless expression. None of the common nervousness of visa applicants.
“Do you work here in the Kingdom?” I asked.
Of course he did. Saudi Arabia only issues work visas. Tourists, the Foreign Ministry argued, would crowd the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. However, because of Saudi’s surging oil industry, nearly a third of the Kingdom’s residents are guest workers. In particular, Saudi employers like to hire South Asian expatriates. They think Asians are more pliable than their fellow Arabs. The foreigners work for less and complain less.
I checked his files, and then I checked them again. My comfortable bureaucratic routine was falling apart. Both of his parents were U.S. citizens, yet this man had never visited them before.
“Why did you wait so long to apply for a visa?” I could not understand why this man had stayed in the dust belt of Saudi Arabia when his parents lived in the relative paradise of southern California.
The man shrugged. He stared up at the right corner of the ceiling. I sighed. This interview was going to be very, very hard.
“Unfortunately, it will take months for you to receive a green card.”
He stiffened. He put his arms on the black counter top. “But I need to go be with my mother. The funeral for my father is this week.”
For the first time in a long time, I felt a creeping sensation as the blood vessels in my face dilated. “I just don’t know what I can do for you. Why didn’t you apply for a visa before? There is no way I can expedite this.”
His eyes became a vacuum pulling my soul through the bulletproof glass. “There must be something you can do.” He leaned forward. “My father died this week.” His voice was angry. “I need to go see him. My mother is alone now.” Then his forehead scrunched. Tears fell down the sides of his cheeks. “Please. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Anything I could do. Anything I could do. The allotted time for an interview had passed. We were supposed to move people along. No one liked waiting in the visa room, despite installing big screen TVs and a latte machine. At that moment, though, I knew the rest of Disney’s summer customers could wait.
I read through his paperwork again. I searched my own knowledge of the State Department’s visa regulations. I had the ability, but not the authority, to issue visas for any reason. A hundred interviews a day meant no one had the time to review every decision. I could hope his case slipped through. It was just a keystroke on my keyboard; I knew it by heart.
The voice of my trainers in Washington, D.C. came back into my mind. Loyalty to the profession. Upholding the rules. These regulations, as arbitrary and cruel as they were, still mattered. I did not have a job or a role outside of them. I had never before wanted so much to bend or break them, but I had become a part of the office. I could no longer separate myself from the system. I was bound and gagged by the force of law. Like a snake coiled around my neck, it would give me no freedom.
I sighed. I said the phrase I never spoke in the visa window. “I’m sorry.”
The young Asian man stared back at me. The tears freely flowed. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it.
“I wish there was something I could do for you.” I said the words with as much meaning as I could. The heavy cloak of my official position slid off. There were no more decisions to make.
The bulletproof glass evaporated. There were no visa applicants, no U.S. government, no pressing demands. There were two young men, standing alone in a fluorescent-lit room, pondering the ancient darkness of this world. We were both ants, trembling under the shadow of a rock-crushing glacier.
I watched and waited. He sobbed without any noise. Every now and then, he would look up at me.
“I’m sorry. I know this is really, really hard for you.”
He nodded. He pulled his papers back together, then put them under his arm. “Why don’t you wait here in the front row?” I said. “We can talk when you’re ready. I can at least tell you how to apply, and who knows, maybe the visa will come in a few weeks.”
He sat down, his emotions still visible on his quiet visage. I continued processing visas. Part of my brain could handle this task without it touching my sadness.
“You are the front lines of American diplomacy,” they told us in D.C. “Every visa applicant will take you as their impression of the United States.”
I was no ambassador. I was no shining beacon of hope to the poor, bedraggled masses of the world. I was an empty, exposed soul, no longer protected by the two inches of polyurethane surrounding my desk. For that afternoon, I was human and naked.
There are arrows which the strongest shields can never repel. There are words which the most powerful will never say. —Robert Kubinec
The opinions and characterizations in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government.
When Robert Kubinec left his job as a consulate officer for the State Department, he traded life in Saudi Arabia for a UVA Ph.D. program in Comparative Politics. “I knew what I wanted to write,” said the sometimes essayist and fiction writer, “but I was trying to get out a story that was so profound it was hard to express.”
In the end, his winning narrative, “Emotional Terrorism,” came out in a four-hour burst. “It’s difficult whenever you’re so close to politics to just tell the story,” he said. “The challenge is always to tell truth, the truth as you really know it, and not try to cover things and make it more palatable or comfortable.”
The daughter of diplomats, guest judge Jane Alison recognized this tension. She described Kubinec’s story as “a carefully formed, taut, and delving portrayal of what it means to be a post-9/11 American in a position of reluctant, and limited, power.”
It’s a position with which Kubinec is all too familiar. “Institutions are so large and powerful that you’re involved as a person but there isn’t a whole lot you can do about things,” he said. “When I worked in DC in the heart of the beast, I started having thoughts about [larger issues of justice] and my own ambivalence toward not just the government but how we become products of government.”
When an op-ed in which he argued for a much softer line on the Muslim government got picked up by USA Today, it “sparked a firestorm of controversy.” After that, Kubinec said, he backed off from writing non-fiction.
“Emotional Terrorism” marked his return to a narrative voice, one he worked hard to keep free of arguments (though the State Department still needed to review it for suitability). Writing his story was an opportunity to do something bold and difficult: step outside the institutions and find his own perspective.—E.D.
Hannah Slayton, the daughter of local children’s book author Fran Cannon Slayton, revisits the fluid trappings of childhood in her essay “Carol,” where Egyptian artifacts and a historical town connect two people on opposite ends of a lifetime.
Local Flavor Category
The wilderness of Virginia woods acts as a teacher for Bob Putnam, who questions domesticity and survival patterns in his essay “Nesting.” A carpenter by trade, the writer’s fiction and poetry have been published in Emerge Literary Journal, Bare Hands Poetry, and Epiphany Magazine.
Julie T. Markham, a North Carolina native and mother of two, studies English and Creative Writing at VCU in Richmond, where she also works as a consultant in the writing center. Peripheral characters and dead-end jobs frame the unbroken thread of her experimental non-fiction essay “A Life Sentence.”
Fellow general category runner-up C. E. (Claire) Cameron divides her time between work as a UVA research scientist studying how children learn and grow and writing true stories of health, grief, and personal transformation, including the evolution of a father-daughter relationship in her essay “The Man in the Photograph.”