I’ve always found collective nouns appealing – a flutter of butterflies, an unkindness of ravens. So many groupings to be described, so many as yet unnamed. Now, looking back to the year I was five, recalling how imagination and speculation spun my world, I choose a name for a certain tender group – all the mystified, fanciful five year-olds. I name them a query of wonderers.
Wondering was my full time occupation at that age. Dot, my great aunt, had died and my confusion regarding the intersection of Dot, God and my parents led to unnerving beliefs. Among them – Dot could observe me and whatever I was doing and thinking at all times. Alive, she had alarmed me with her fierce bushy eyebrows. Dead, hovering over me at will, she still held all the power.
If, for example, I did not brush my teeth, only dampened the brush, too late it would occur to me that Dot was watching me commit this sin. I had already decided God was a very large testy human, one not necessarily rooting for me. With Dot in the picture, I became certain she alerted him to each transgression and he, with somber relish, reported all to my parents. They claimed they knew through eyes in the back of their heads, but I knew it was God tattling.
As punishment, I was always required by my parents to relinquish whatever I cherished most – the dime that represented my entire financial health or perhaps my beloved music box with the popup ballerina, “until we decide you’ve learned your lesson.” If I had lied about my favorite, I knew Dot would tell.
The period the item was absent never exceeded a day or two, but resembled forever to me. This strategy of deprivation was, of course, a source of fascinated dread. What would I lose next? And why? The rules I broke were often hazy, and extenuating factors were not taken into consideration.
For instance, what was I to do when my sister spoiled my irreplaceable Snow White page in the coloring book? (We shared this coloring book. I assumed then that this measure of household economy was normal, and possibly it was somewhere, but I have never met another soul who had to share a coloring book.)
Yanking my sister’s hair for scribbling on my page seemed reasonable retaliation. Dot would surely agree this was not me being bad. Then again, how confident was I as to her definition of bad?
During my childhood I embraced this larger-than-life perspective. But eventually, inevitably, my belief a celestial panel was eagerly plotting to impose more losses faded. However, navigating the world on its terms has taught me reality is not so different after all.
The sense that loss is non-negotiable, that what is valued will disappear, endures. Life driven by the random, the unfathomable, compels me to proceed with wariness along a vague path, tensed for unmapped chasms, fissures – a failed marriage, a lost friend. I watch and wonder as landmarks shimmer and disappear when one parent dies, the other becomes my child. Powerless, I exist knowing my world follows an unreliable orbit.
I have a house in Mexico where I linger late afternoons on the terrace, gazing at seabirds soaring and swooping in formations above the bay. With casual optimism they ride the wind, never questioning whether it will maintain. I admire their calm confidence, envy their mantles of assurance.
Then, some evenings, when clouds obscure the stars, I return to the terrace and gaze into the night’s deep nothing. I envision those wheeling seabirds as creatures filled with all I know – magically, instantly, internalizing all the lessons I have learned. I feel them recognize that their world spins in perilous rotation. I feel their fierce anguish as they search for a long-departed sea, beg for comfort from expired stars. Absorb the pain of absence.
I name them a loss of seabirds when I see them drifting in wobbling parabolas, wings working ceaselessly to maintain lift, understanding only slowly that no currents of air remain to buoy them. That the punishment for life is loss.
Stephanie Madan has worked as a fiction and essay columnist with My Table magazine and The Buzz, chronicling life lived mostly in restaurants. Her fiction, essays and poems on subjects such as murder, good dogs and the fate of truth and compassion are published in numerous anthologies.