This story collection is an exemplar for Short-short Sighted #23, “Let Me Repeat That: A Prose Villanelle”.
Lately I don’t recognize this country, the land of my birth. The contours of the land are the same. I can buy what I always bought in the stores. The weather has changed, though. Last winter, we had no snow, but the wind blew love letters to dead soldiers into drifts up to my knees.
When I drove north across the border, I didn’t have smuggling on my mind. I drove through the mountains like any tourist who wanted only a little respite. In the alpine snow fields, I saw blue shadows. That particular color has its own name, a name unknown on my side of the border.
The border guard walked around my car, inspecting with a mirror on a long rod. He made me open the trunk. A dog sniffed the upholstery. “Take off your shoes,” the guard said. With gloved fingers, he lifted the insole to find the word I had hidden underneath, the word for blue shadows in snow. He said, “Did you think we wouldn’t know where to look?”
When I was a boy of five, I played all summer in a green jumpsuit with insignia on the sleeves, firing my cap guns at the enemy trees. I had a red fireman’s helmet, too, with the long brim in back, and I was spanked for aiming the garden hose through an open bedroom window. When I grew up, I was going to be a fireman or a soldier, and I didn’t see much difference between them.
Across the border, the money is more colorful. On the blue or red bills are portraits of heros whose names I never heard in school.
Lately I don’t recognize this country, the land of my birth. These mountains are the same mountains. The presidents on my money are the same ones whose names I learned in school. The weather has changed, though. Last winter, we had no snow. Instead, the names of dead presidents fell from the sky. Wind blew the black letters of WASHINGTON and LINCOLN into drifts up to my knees.
It was no trouble at all to cross the border. The guard looked at my passport and stamped it only because I asked her to. I wanted some physical sign that I had been somewhere else, some evidence besides memory.
Certainly, I did not have smuggling on my mind. On my second day there, I drove across the grasslands at first light. Cresting a rise, I saw wheat fields lying before me like a blanket. We have such fields in my own country, but we do not have a word for the color of the ripe grain first thing in the morning.
The border guard walked around my car, inspecting with a mirror on a long rod. He made me open the trunk. A dog sniffed the upholstery. “Open your mouth,” he said. With gloved fingers, he lifted my tongue to find the word I had hidden underneath, the word for miles of ripe wheat in the morning light. He said, “Did you think we wouldn’t know where to look?”
There is a border between innocence and experience, a border that moves. I keep thinking that I have crossed it, and having crossed it, I change my mind about what I know. I am a man now, and I know what it is to be a man. But then I find that the border has moved ahead of me, and I still have much to learn about being a man. War is never necessary, I think. But the border has moved. War is sometimes necessary. No, I find that I am still on the side of innocence.
The same trees grow on either side of the border. In the other country, many people speak the same language as the language they speak in the country of my birth. Not all the words are the same. The dust doesn’t know which country it belongs to. Wind blows dust north today and south tomorrow, increasing one nation at the expense of the other, then taking back what it gave. Lately I don’t recognize this country, even though the trees are the same on either side of the border. My own country feels strange. It is the other side that feels familiar. Familiar, and strange at the same time. In the land of my birth, the weather is still the weather, although last winter we went without snow.
For miles and miles, no fence divides one side from the other. You could walk back and forth all day, testing the difference until night fell. You might wake to find your head in one country and your feet in the other.
In fact, I did not walk the unguarded portions of the border at night, but when I was in the other country, I walked beyond the glow of my campfire until I could no longer see my hand before my face. I lay on my back and looked up through the trees silhouetted against the starry sky. The darkness between the stars is the same darkness we see from my own country. The border guard walked around my car, writing notes on a clipboard. He made me pop the hood and open the trunk. He took me to a room without windows. “Take off your shirt,” he said. He used a sharp blade on the skin of my chest, and he peeled back my skin to reveal the word I had hidden underneath, the word for the dark between the stars. He said, “Did you think we wouldn’t know where to look?”
In the other country, they wear red plastic poppies on their lapels to remember the war dead.
In the mountains of the other country, I came upon a field of poppies. They were not red at all, but a shade of orange.
Lately I don’t recognize this country, the land of my birth. I feel sometimes as if I crossed a border that I hadn’t intended to cross. Those are the hills that have always been there, forested with trees that I know. But last winter, we had no snow, and the wind blew the dried petals of poppies into drifts up to my knees.
The border guard walked around my car. He inspected the back seat, the trunk, the hubcaps. He took me to a room without windows. “Take off your shirt,” he said. He pushed a needle into my arm and drew out my blood. He spread the blood on a plate of glass. He read the word that I was smuggling home. He said, “Did you think we wouldn’t know where to look?”
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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