Anne Gudger of Portland, Oregon has won the 44th New Millennium Nonfiction Prize for “Dendrites.”
She will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.
From the expansive first lines to the evocative ending, “Dendrites” invites readers to speed along the author’s gray matter through her most transformative life events. It’s a ride you won’t soon forget.
by Anne Gudger
When you were stardust.
When you were in between your last life and this.
When your particles dipped and tangoed.
When the space in your atoms was infinite.
When you looked around and said, “That family. That one.” Because your soul wanted healing. Because you knew you’d learn a type of love with them.
Stardust. Ether. Twilight.
The in between.
Between then and now. Now and next.
Will you hold it in your weathered hand?
Glitter light cradled in your girl hands, billowing in, out like you were playing your mom’s concertina as the light ball shrunk and grew from watermelon to cantaloupe to plum and back. Light arced between your palms, sizzling with fuzzy edges. Light bulb white. Blue white. Rainbow white. Shimmer between your fingers too when you spread them wide, when you squinted at the in between space when you saw light webs like glass fibers that tickled your skin.
You didn’t know everyone didn’t see it until one kindergarten day, home from school, in your flannel nightgown with the frayed hem from worrying it, flopped on the nubby couch, orange juice and a thermometer on the coffee table. Your mom in black slacks and a pressed white blouse half way up a metal ladder, washing the Taller Than Her living room windows. The smell of vinegar tickled your nose. The squeak of crumpled newspaper as she dried the glass, her arm swinging in half circles. The madrona tree out the windows with its peely bark and soft underside, with its burnt orange berries the birds would eat then crash into the picture windows.
“Look Mama,” you said and held your hands out, palms up, the light between them electric.
“What?” she said, pushing her wavy black bangs with the heel of her hand.
“See?” you tried again and raised your hands, that rainbow lifting with you.
“See what?” she said and scrunched her brow, her worry look. She peeled off lemon yellow rubber gloves and climbed down the ladder that dug its feet deeper into carpet. And “Let me take your temperature.”
When you’re an adult, you’ll walk into a rock shop in Montana, smell dust and dry. You’ll love the agates and their dendrites caught in rock. As you palm the agates, trace the little tree dendrites with your finger, you’ll remember this day. Flopped on the couch. The first time of many when you understood that what comes through to you doesn’t come through to everyone. You’ll squeeze your eyes and conjure this childhood memory. You’ll wish you could reach back to your young self and say, Look at the light in your hands. How beautiful it is. Keep playing with it as it sizzles and sparks and stretches.
Instead the veil between here and there thickened.
Dad with Vodka coffee. Mom with Self Help books, becoming a line drawing of herself. Their crazy divorce.
The light in your girl hands dimmed as the veil grew a shell—thin as crackling fall frost, thick as the Missouri River frozen in winter.
28 and pregnant. Your love cup overflowed and all that love and trust thinned the veil again. Intuition people say. You were glad yours was turned back up. You hugged your husband long in the parking lot where you had your last hug, that gut voice begging you to keep him home. Pendleton jacket wooly on your cheek. Your ear on his thrumming, beating heart. The smell of him: Irish Spring and the outdoors.
“I’ll see you late tonight,” he said and kissed the top of your head as your gut squished with anxiety and baby and Don’t Go.
“We need you,” you said or that’s what you think you said as you rubbed your belly as the sky bruised up as you knew he was going as your throat shrunk and squeezed away your words.
“You had a premonition?” the chaplain asked hours later in the cool of your living room when he told you what your heart knew when you spied him through the peep hole: your husband was dead. Your bare feet with chipped red nail polish all ice. You just wanted socks.
You spun your wedding ring and wished the chaplain with milky grey eyes would Go Away.
You grieved. Hard. Cried beyond your beyond. You sobbed thunder tears on the stairs, unsure if you’d been going up or down when you melted on the burnt orange shag. You screamed at the unfairness. Your husband too young. 36. Almost a dad. You screamed until you realized Maybe Not. Maybe that’s all the life he got and maybe it was right. Maybe there was more for you.
Three months widowed and your son was born. 6 pounds 9 ounces of yum. Your beaten heart beat, beat with love and possibility. In time love turned to more love. You remarried and had a second child. A girl this time.
“One of each,” your friends said. “Lucky you.”
And you grinned because, yes, you felt lucky again.
“It’s going to hit us!” you screamed, glinting at sharp summer sun low in the horizon as the silver car blazed towards you as it crushed the rust orange Honda Element just behind the driver’s door, that gritty metal on metal clash of bad dreams and frozen breath and Oh Fuck. You flopped around, squeezed by the seatbelt that would bruise your neck and chest. Ribs slammed into the armrest. Shins pounded the glove box. The Honda rolled on its side, this big pumpkin cut loose, skidded down the street, passenger window busted out, your shoulder inches from concrete, glass chards nicking your head, bare arms and legs, glass in your bra.
You gripped air.
Frozen lungs. Your body went ice. Like dunking in a river past your eyebrows.
I’m going to die, zipped through you as you went numb. Body ditched, you became rice paper woman, floating out of the car and above the crash. No harp strums, no ohms, no Gregorian chants. Not even the sound of breath wind and yet. Yet. A tear in reality’s curtain. You slipped through and witnessed.
Someone else’s body pummeled whose hard working heart might stop.
She might have said I love you for the last time.
You were I’m Okay and This Is It and It’s Good.
In that quiet sliver of Outside of Yourself you knew for the first time, knew in the tiniest atoms of your heart that when your first husband died, he must have felt this Unfisting. Bliss. Nothingness on the other side of sound. Nothingness on the other side of bodies.
And that’s what made you cry.
After 25 years it took your own car accident to let go of your terror of your first husband being hurt. For 25 years you hoarded fear deep in your gut, past skin and muscle and bone, under your breast, a beat to the right of your heart. His crushed head, stopped heart, last breath, last words you made up to have some peace.
You floated above the Honda mess and knew: When he crashed, his essence eyed his mangled car and cooling off heart and said, “I’m out. Let’s go.” Because that thing we are never dies. Energy transforms. Your physicist husband told you that on those long car drives. Like he was preparing you for the unpreparable.
The rust orange Honda Element raked down the tar street on its side, wheels spinning.
Kids are too young, you thought. Me too. Too Young.
And swoosh you zipped back in your body. Reentry was faster. Harder. Waves of tingle rippled through your crown to your toes. An electric pulse in veins and arteries and corpuscles, in cells and mitochondria and atoms. Electricity radiated to your skin, arms, legs, toes, fingers, head. A wave up your spine, zapping vertebrae, vertebrae, vertebrae. Out your crown.
The door arm dug in your ribs. Your shins cracked against the glove box. You forced breath back in your fist-sized lungs. Forced. Like the time you almost drowned and your aunt pushed breath and life back into your wet six-year-old body.
For months particles of you hung out on that corner by Stark’s Vacuum. You felt her when you crept through the crash intersection, almost reaching the speed limit, watching for the light change and cars streaming from the left. You didn’t breathe as your body cooled with memory. You stared at Stardust You. Leaning on a street sign. Sunbeam crystals glinting off your coyote brown hair.
“What makes those little crystals?” you asked, pointing to an agate in the glass case, caramel colored, dotted with what looked like spliced crystals. Another, milky moss colored, with crystals like undressed winter trees, boney fingers stretching.
“Not crystals,” he grunted, soft and low.
You waited a beat for more.
He wiped the glass where you’d set your coffee in a paper cup. The thin elbows of his jade colored corduroy shirt sagged.
Beauty and wonder all around you and your husband in the rock shop packed with rocks, crystals, salt rocks lit like beacons, fossils, a white cathedral crystal in the window large as a Dachshund. Cases of Montana agates.
Your husband wanted a bolo tie. His want drew you in. Equaled only by your want to please him.
“What are they?” you asked.
“Dendrites,” he said, his voice tired.
Dendrites. From the Greek Dendron or tree. In nerve cells, a branched extension where impulses are transmitted to the cell body. In agates, crystal-seeming branches, like ink drawings of naked trees sketched in the agate’s skin. Growth but not growth. The illusion of time stopped. An illusion you can hold, loop with leather and wear.
You eyed a tortoise colored bolo with a burst of white, almost human shaped. “Ooh,” you said and smiled at your love husband who laced his fingers through yours. Him. Deep blue eyes. Dove grey hair. Honey of a man. You could already see the tie at the base of his throat.
“Can we see that bolo?” you asked the man with the ponytail and chapped hands. “And the pendant next to it?”
You didn’t know when you stepped in the rock shop, out of the Montana blue sky, so blue it was like being on the inside of a marble. Didn’t know when the rock polisher swabbed his glasses and trudged to the glass case. You didn’t know the healing qualities of Montana agates: balance, cleansing, window to the cosmos while held by earth. It’s good you didn’t know these things or you would have gone looking for your agate rather than letting it look for you.
You stood under the stars. Midnight black sky, speckled with pinpricks of light as if it were a worn blanket dotted with moth holes. The Big Dipper skimmed the treetops of Montana’s fall horizon, scooping endless sky. Big Dipper. Little Dipper. Star shapes you’ve pointed to since you remember pointing. The cool of the stars. The cool of metal on your skin: your milky Montana agate with bark colored dendrites above your heart muscle.
You breathed the night in through fat lungs, soft hips.
You breathed stars, their atoms in you, yours in them. Breathed them into your body, your skin, the dendrites in your nerve cells. You on the edge of sky and earth.
Light tickled your fingers like when you were a girl.
The crackle of a campfire. Orange red firelight reflected in your dark eyes. The smoky scent lingered in your hair all night. The wind shifted and you smelled something fermented. Decay. Sharp and tangy and sweet.
Dendrites © 2017 Anne Gudger
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anne Gudger’s previous work can be found at Real Simple Magazine, The Rumpus, Slippery Elm, NAILED Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Entropy and more.
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