| Nonfiction

Before Fairbanks, Alaska

Nonfiction Patrick Barney

Home’s a shed and wood-pile. Home is bones. It might travel with you, if you ask it to, but you rarely ever ask it to. Home is a dog you love because it’s a creature on four legs…

Home’s a shed and wood-pile. Home is bones. It might travel with you, if you ask it to, but you rarely ever ask it to. Home is a dog you love because it’s a creature on four legs, a dog who cocks its face to look at you and beg. Home lies upon the island groaning with trees—and the island itself lies upon the mud-green lake that swells with each hard rainfall. You can see home in the forested island’s ruptured leaves, in its tree trunks which ache into the soil. You can see home in the island’s shadow washed across the cement surface of the water, cast down in the unsaturated light of a sun borne by a sky of clouds which shatter their raindrops to the ground.

Home is the quiet pain of being in your head, the average pain of living in your own head for seven moments chained to one another by the torch of welder. On the forested island, watched by unsaturated light and ruptured light, you are chained to seven moments in your head by the torch of a welder, and you find that home can’t quiet the quiet pain in your head, the average pain in your head. You murdered and conquered home, built it as a rock castle upon a hill of grass clippings. You devoured home in insect mandibles, gorged upon it and loved the rock castle you ruined even as you laid down each of its stones. Each of its stones is a quiet pain, an average pain, laid down by your weathered hands aged with their cumulative weight.

Its stones are as porous as the bark of melaleuca trees and inside each one lingers the coiling smoke of your countless cigarettes. Your face has been aged with the cumulative weight of all that cigarette smoke, the cigarette smoke caught inside the aerosol cans you have sprayed upon the tulips growing just a few yards back from the edge of the lake, its surface broken by the forested island that loves to ingest the grass clippings you have thrown and scattered to the trees. Your face is aged, wrinkled, folded over upon itself within the plumes of cigarettes. Home is cigarettes. Smoke has always been a bad omen, or at least the absence of good omens, and you are at home in the absence of good omens. You are at home sweating under limbs of dense sunlight and tossing to the dying grass the apple cores whose absent flesh you have ingested. You have spent so many happy days wandering in potato fields, wondering if the tubers lying therein want to be unearthed. You always keep your face to the earth, looking for the spuds to climb up from their fertile coffins, waiting for them to break apart the soil upon which you stand and throw you eleven feet into the sky. Once thrown there, and perhaps asunder, you will be unable to see the island upon the lake but whereat you will, nonetheless, see towards the end of the vacuum of space that casts itself outward in the knowledge that it must, always, contract.

You’ve seen the cosmic solstice brought on by winter in space, seen snow drifting in its places and known that the universe never stops walking, and in witnessing its walking, its ever-repeated contraction, you’ve become tired of living and dying the same way a million times, of reenacting birth, of always pissing, eating, shitting, wailing, loving, fucking, hating, fucking, and dying. You’ve become tired of the iron drainpipes with which you’ve flagellated yourself, tired of their rust that has oxidized and corroded your skin throughout the repetition of lifetimes that has not ceased. You know that cosmonauts are at home climbing gymnosperms, but you have never found, as they have, that home is something tangible, like twigs in your hands are tangible, like the powder of moth wings is tangible; you have not found home in space nor in heaven, nor in moths beating their wings to break the sky.

Perhaps you found home once in viewing mountains, where you knew, if you could get high enough, you would eat snow every day and your lungs would spew forth from your lips due to the lightening of pressure. Perhaps you thought home could be in the mountains, or in the rivers that spill down from their crags. You thought home could be in the hills dwarfed by the mountains, or in the flowered vales that puncture the earth between the two. But then you knew, when turning your eyes away from such vistas to your hands upon the steering wheel, that home could be in these places or it could be in no places. Perhaps, you think now, that one of these places, one of these spots in which home resides, is in the pulchritude of the irony in its inherent ugliness.

Home is beneficent, you know that; at the same time that it is ugly it is beneficent. It is also a cracked road of five miles from your house to your village, an aged street across which lies tangles of pith-vines pointing barbs to your ankles and wrists as you swing your limbs by, a brick wall which leans outward and crumbles cement and begs to be set upright. It is your fingertips upon the gravel of your driveway, your flat fingerprints upon its sediment as you take breaths from your cigarette and kneel to slide your hand into its depressions that have, from season to season, been refilled. Yes, home is beneficent and only three generations old, angry that you rarely ever ask it travel with you when you take steps to leave it behind. Home mourns in your absence, erects gravestones next to its walls, shivers as icicles slough down from its gutters, aches as you walk outward through rusting leaves and mutes its cries behind its windows, knows that you know it isn’t really here, in the place it says it is, in this place you’ve lived for one of three generations, in this place where it seems it has always, always, been. Home is not in this place, nor is it in one place, but it is in some place or in no place, depending on who you are and who you’ve thought yourself to be.

In traveling outward from this place through rusting leaves and tangles of pith-vines, you have wished that someone might tell you where home is, what shape it takes under yellow clouds or upon the cusp of rocks. You have wished for a voice to mention a location, perhaps just two square feet of earth or mind, that could stand for home. You want to see it somewhere, in words written on a page, in the thin tremors of a cymbal, in heavy brush strokes on canvas. Until you see it there, you’ve decided that you’ll content yourself in wandering, in traveling with your heart in a box, carrying it around like mules carry sugar and straw and sunflower seeds.

Patrick Barney is currently a graduate student in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where he teaches freshman composition. His poetry and prose has appeared in Flights: A Literary Journal and 40 Below, a literary journal dedicated to explorations of pedagogy.

One Reply to “Before Fairbanks, Alaska”

  1. Rob Martin says:

    Some lovely writing and images here, Patrick. I wondered if you could explain your choice to write in the second person? I find it blurs the relationship of the narrator to home, by placing an unknown third person, “you,” between them. Using the first person might add strength, clarity, and immediacy to your wonderful images.