Michael Marano, 129 TESS
A Year Without Drinking/ The Little Bird and the Light: Two Stories, One Ending
The little bird is scared. The Light has left the cage. The bird calls out for It to return. Summons It. Prays to It. Closes its eyes, goes deep within to the place It can always be found, and finds the once bright setting bare and bleak.
Why have I been abandoned? Where have you gone?
The little bird feels around in the darkness. The other end of the string, attached to its foot in an attempt to remain safe, lies unknotted next to the bar it had tied it to. Frantic and flapping, it notices its wings for the first time.
How hard it had tried to forget that it was supposed to fly. Sitting pretty and quiet had drawn many admirers, kept it safe, but without the Light it starts to suffocate.
The little bird loses its footing, through a door that has never been opened before it falls, plummeting towards the earth.
Fly. Fly. I made you to fly.
Down and down the little bird goes.
Face Mask in a Dirty Bathroom
I’ve been home for three minutes after two weeks of travel and English camps, a superhero mask with seashells glued onto it sticks to my sock as I walk toward the door. I reach it before the first knock, their arrival announced by the repeated shouting of my name.
I take a deep breath. The night I had dreamed about on the bus ride home, time to process and relax and unpack, over as soon as my tuk-tuk was spotted entering the village.
They drive me to a funeral taking place at my village mother’s shop, two sugarcane fields to the left. I’m told in broken English it’s for her grandmother, a woman I’ve never met. Kneeling, I light incense and a candle, say a prayer, bring my head and hands to the floor in unison three times.
I look up at the picture hidden amongst the wall of flowers and am shocked at the face staring down at me. The face that waits for me at the end of their driveway every morning to say hello, the face that asks me about my students every afternoon, the face I seek out when feeling overwhelmed that welcomes me into a conversation that takes place in total silence.
This is not her grandmother, but her father-in-law, my Thai grandfather.
I walk straight to the bathroom. I start crying. It scares me because I don’t know how to control it. Tears come for the loss of my Thai grandfather, for the missing presence of my American family who had sat at the table I was about to eat at two weeks prior, for the friend who had been my rock for these first two years who would have to end her service early, for her mother.
I don’t think it will ever stop when I see a smile staring back at me. A face mask has been plastered to the wall. It looks through me to the squat toilet on the ground. It’s haunting and fascinating, a little perverse, and I start to laugh. I pull myself together and walk back out into the humid night.
My face betrays me. Eyes distant, cheeks red, corners of a smile that refuse to put in the work to form dimples. I pray no one will notice. They notice. In front of the whole community I am told to harden my heart. I’m embarrassed. Surprised. Betrayal arches my eyebrows.
I’ve never felt lonelier.
An Omen of Melted Wax
The little bird’s wings begin fluttering on their own just as it’s about to hit the ground. Soon it’s soaring through the sky, almost ramming into the side of its cage on the way up.
It sees its home for the first time from the outside, dangling from a tree branch, attached to the bottom a chandelier of candle sticks burnt down to the rusted spikes that held them in place. It awes at the icicles of wax under each one, pointing frozen in time in the way the breeze blows.
The little bird wants to go back inside, shut the door, fasten its string, but cedes to the omen of the Light’s arrows, and away, into the wind, it flies.
A Year Without Drinking
19 blurry plates of food ding into my phone one right after the other. They are followed by a picture of my host mother and two village mothers, enticing me with their smiles in case the papaya salad and grilled chicken weren’t enough.
I park my bike next to the tree with the least number of red ants and walk toward the music. Students I haven’t seen since school let out run up to me shouting random sentences in English. They point at the dog peeing on my bike, giggling his soap-in-Ralphie’s-mouth name, savoring their free pass to use a word that isn’t fudge.
In the daylight, after a full night’s sleep, and without the surprise of not being at a stranger’s funeral my heart is allowed to be just as it is without fear of making a scene. We eat and celebrate the life of a man that meant so much to me, an amount minuscule to what he meant to them.
A glass of whiskey is poured and placed in front of me. Before I take a sip, I ask why my village father, Pa Som, isn’t drinking. He tells me that to honor the life of his father he is abstaining from alcohol for one month. The determination in his eyes, both at the surface and far away, rearranges something in my mind.
I don’t make a big deal about it but I avoid the whiskey until it’s in the hands of someone else. I don’t drink often but when I do it’s without thought, a learned action, a cup that always seems to be filled, a pacifier to social anxieties that I’ve never been weaned from, one that leaves me with headaches and regret.
In that moment, under the watchful eyes of my students, I decide that I will stop drinking for a year, maybe indefinitely. In honor of all the reasons I cried the night before, in honor of myself.
Lost on a One-Way Street
The little bird feels alive for the first time, in total control, but this new freedom is scary, with it comes responsibility. It screams into the void left by the Light.
Where will I go? What will I do?
It gets lost in the clarity of its path, seeks ways to disprove the obvious, makes up facts as to why this direction is meant for something far greater than a little bird. Being shown the truth hasn’t made the lies any less delicious.
It finds that if it flies close enough to the earth it can distract itself with adventure. Its string getting caught in a spider web, tangled in the straw of a broom as it’s pushed back outside through an open window, tugged at by the hands of a farmer’s daughter on her way to school.
Each one more dangerous and time consuming, it loses its purpose in a sea of adrenaline, in risks that further delay its reward.
The Night Before
I wake up. I’m not hungover, but I’m tired. The night before played out like a night from the year before, only without alcohol.
Thoughts, words, decisions I had blamed on drinking remain in my sifting pan, shining like anything but gold.
I feel defeated until I begin to appreciate their value, these precious elements, now tangible.
The prize had never been a Saturday morning without nausea, but a starting point to conquer the issues that laid hidden underneath the buzz.
I didn’t drink to become myself, I drank to avoid myself, and when my real self managed to shine through, for a way to write it off in embarrassment.
Alcohol had been the top layer, but now I needed to put on my hard hat and excavate, dig past the artifacts until I found myself, untouched by the hands and ideas of man.
A Tree That Grows
One day, it gets caught in a tree that grows from a seed to a tower in nine shakes of the little bird’s wings.
It fights to free its string as it had so many times before, against far bigger threats than a twig, but it won’t let the little bird go.
Sun glistens off the dew swimming in the grooves of one of the leaves, a glimpse of the Light the little bird had almost forgotten about. The branch it has been struggling against summons it to rest on its surface.
It lands and feels the vibrations of the tree whisper into its toes.
What you seek won’t be born from chaos; it exists already in the simplicity that surrounds you. You’re lost, but not off track.
It recognizes the voice of the Light and understands what it must do. The string, its last piece of comfort, its easiest distraction, floats down to the ground as the tree shrinks back to a seed.
I start to meditate. I breathe. I pray. I ask questions. I am given answers that I don’t want to hear. I listen anyway.
For the first time in my life I want to be seen. Really seen. Bare, no façade. I write about things that terrify me to share. I erase them. I write them again. I share them anyway. I stare into the mirror until the face stops looking like a stranger, until I like what I see.
It’s harder than I think it will be. Not the year without drinking, the vulnerability. But I try. I try so hard. Again and again and again I try.
And in search of the Light, evaporated with the dew into the clouds before it, the little bird goes. It’s flying stronger than it ever would have dared to dream, wishing it could go back and scare the frightened bird it had been with this story.
It laughs at the thought, swoops through the air, and continues on its journey.
Sweat drips down my forehead, down my chin, down my chest, down, down, down. We’ve been dancing for three straight hours, me and all of the teachers from the eight schools in our district, waves crash to our right, platters of fish bones to our left.
I turn down a ninth glass of whiskey. He doesn’t drink, a teacher who offered me my third glass yells over the thud of eight speakers. Half of the table appreciates this, the other half stares at me like I’m from outer space, the only way to explain my dance moves without the aid of alcohol.
I’ve gotten closer to the teachers at my school over the past year. The situations where I used to rely on drinking, I now rely on myself, on the person I dug so deep to find. I dance longer, speak with more confidence, stay out later, build real connections, all the reasons I used to drink now the reasons I don’t.
The next morning, I’m clear headed, no trace of the hungover anxiety that used to accompany the ache above my knee from a late night spent dancing. I limp out of the jungle near our hotel having just watched a spider the size of my fist weave its web, a little bird chirping above my shoulder. I sit in the sand and read my book while the rest of the teachers wake up.
I revel every time someone comes up to me and tells me they loved watching me dance. They saw me. Watched me. Leg in the air. Smile on my face. Me, without excuse. Me.
The Little Bird and the Teacher
The little bird flies all over the world. Without its string it can get near enough to appreciate the things it takes interest in. It has not yet found the Light but every day it feels closer.
It watches a spider spin its web, dedicated it creates a masterpiece using magic the little bird cannot comprehend. It twitters in awe above the shoulder of a teacher in a backwards baseball cap out on a morning walk, book in his hand. They fight the urge to touch, to get the spider’s attention. Finding the stillness much more entrancing, they resist.
The little bird feels a kinship to the teacher and decides to follow him.
It comes upon a blue house surrounded by fields of sugarcane; laughter booms out of every window igniting the fireflies that buzz around it. The little bird watches the teacher jump off the couch, the baby on his hip smacking the roof with a sword on their way to the ground. Two kids run screaming below. Their shouts mesh with the sizzle of the father’s fish frying in a pan outside, with the hiss of the mother’s iron located in the center of the chaos, with the sound of a baby just starting to recognize its own laugh, creating a light that almost blinds the little bird sitting on its perch. Not wanting to interrupt a scene so perfect, it finds a place nearby to sleep, it will interrogate the Light another day.
The next morning, it enters a school full of superheroes. Children running around in capes and masks, fighting the air, jumping over invisible bad guys. One, two, three they shout as they fly into the sky, the teacher in a pink polo lying in the grass taking their picture. Laughter distracts the little bird and the teacher, they look over to catch two fourth grade superheroes sitting on a bale of hay, trapped in a world of giggles, the Light radiating between their eyes.
The little bird flies over the teacher’s head, too close, making him scream, pitch higher than that of a chipping sparrow. It flies towards the Light, demands an answer as to why It had left.
Can’t you see? I was with you this whole time. The wax in the wind. The gravity keeping the the little girl’s fingertips just short of your string. The leaves, the dew, the branches, the tree. The wings that make you fly.
You’ve only just now started to pay attention. I am always here but still you must search.
The little bird is satisfied by the answer, excited even. It forms a bond with the teacher and together they spend their lives finding the Light in unexpected rivers and lands, in the newest and oldest of faces, on the ground and in the sky, in the flesh and deep within the pages of used books. Some days they are defeated or tired or sick and forget to chase the Light.
But still It is there. Always with the little bird and the teacher. And they always remember.
Read Michael Marano’s previous articles Strings of Fear, A Big Gay Peace Corps Spiritual Journey, One More Time, See You Again on the Next Time, Falling in Love in the Peace Corps, River Rise, Not Taking It On, Love, The Mystery of the Tooth in the Sock, and An Island Curse.