On Survival: That Five-Fingered Beast

by Chelsea Walker


Section I: A Thought

To write, I think, is to make the heart a hand in an earth made of clay.

Section II: The Clay

It was 2005 in the poetry section of 5th grade Language Arts. Ms. Searfoss had dull, flat brown hair and a nose that bent over like it was trying to sniff her upper lip. There may have been hair on the upper lip. There may have been love there, too. What there most definitely was, was a beginning. She gave me a white, blank book, (and by gave me I mean she gave everyone, but we all like to pretend the beginning was meant for ourselves and ourselves alone). She told us to decorate the outside. I drew a flower. A petunia, to be exact, because my grandmother had those growing in wild purple clumps next to her front door, and I loved my grandmother deeply. On the inside I wrote a poem about war. I didn’t know anything about war. I didn’t know anything about poetry, but I knew enough to be sad, and in 2007 “Monster War” won a writing contest for seventh and eighth graders because I was too lazy to write a new poem. I got first place. The certificate was light blue with indented silver trim. I ran my fingers (even then I was biting my nails) over the thick cardstock, wondering how hard I would have to press to get a papercut, wondering if, at last, there was something in my blood worth writing down.

It was a burgundy feeling, writing: one violently soft and smelling of fresh dirt. I had for the first time looked around and found a sort of fertility in the world, squishing between my fingers and begging me to craft something from it. Everywhere, words: found, red as clay in a white book with a purple petunia on the cover.

Section III: The Hand

I met my best friend when I was three. Her name was Marie, and we scraped our knees on the playground and touched them together. Once we were blood sisters we tried French-kissing. Once we knew what kissing was, we laughed at ourselves. Once we laughed at ourselves, we went to her mother’s funeral. I held her hand, my fingers resting between her urges to tighten herself into a punch. A funeral is an angry affair.

Five years later Marie entered the same writing contest. She won second place in the essay category. She wrote about her cousin’s autism. We both knew, even then, how to be sad.

She is now a pre-med student at the University of Virginia. She overcame this: her mother’s death by cancer, an eating disorder, and a boy who broke her heart. All three almost killed us both. All three carried wounds that we stitched with long letters to one another. I will see her for the first time in a year this Thanksgiving. Still, she sometimes asks me to send her poetry. Still, we sometimes walk through the world with our young words calloused on our palms, that middle school validation the first of the tough skin to grow on our knuckles. When you fill your hands with clay, a fist becomes a wasteful action.

Section IV: The Heart

It was 2008 reading The Bean Trees in the bathroom when my grandmother called and said my brother was gone. Half-brother, I should say. Dad’s side. Mentally ill. IQ of 162. I sat with my dad on the patio, touched his back. In those days my dad was still skinny, and I could feel his spine breaking under my fingertips (yes, I was still biting my nails). I left him to wail his cliché why God why. (Interesting, how clichés are often the best we can do when we are hurt. True pain can’t be pretty. It is instinctual, primitive. So we cry why God why, we throw our hands up, we fall down. It is okay. Sometimes there is beauty in the inability to be beautiful.) Inside, I talked to my cousins that I didn’t know: Patrick in a suit with a red face, Megan in a sweater hugging me, Emma in a white dress staring, Lynn in jeans asking me about school. She heard I like to write. Why God why in the background.

From there until the funeral, the memories drip across one another. I went to my friend’s house. We slept on the roof. I kissed a girl (a real kiss) for the first time. My father and I set off fireworks. My mother told me not to say anything about the weed, he needed it right now. I borrowed a black jacket from Marie. She held my hand.

It all drips, one night’s black swallowing sky running diagonally across one day’s wet phone call, circling back across one mid-afternoon’s grim discussion of Christmas (it’s in a week, you know). What I did was I forgot and I wrote. I grabbed a composition book, scratched “Water’s First Breath” in black sharpie across the red cover, slashed pages with scribbles and kissed others with detail. I challenged myself to a duel, challenged the lines on the page to contain themselves, challenged the earth to make itself into something I could claim, something I could control, something I could make beautiful.

I went to the funeral. There was a prayer. I couldn’t feel it.

Afterwards, I stuck a pen through my heart and held it up to the sun. I said, this world can be changed if you reach out and change it. Stretch yourself into a sculptor.

She made a beautiful thing.

Section V: The Writer

It is 2016 with a beer in my hand: Abita, Purple Haze. I am sitting on a couch in my girlfriend’s and my house, surrounded by three people typing essays and smoking cigarettes. I will light one soon, because I am writing, and as much as writing saves me, it makes me want a cigarette. (I can’t ignore how, in the midst of revealing my life, I crave that thing, that thing that everyone says is killing me. What is it about baring your soul that makes you want to inhale something that is burning?)

I still have that light blue certificate (after all, it is the beginning). I still don’t know anything about war, and maybe, in fact, I don’t know anything about how to be sad. But, I know about poetry. I know about pretty certificates with silver trim, coming back to the petunias, the blood pacts, the funerals, the wailing. I know intimately the coolness of the earth between the fingers of my heart. I know how words bring back, how they transcend and remind you of who you are, what you have become, what you have grown into. I know about abstract (see: this paragraph) and concrete (see: my cousin’s clothing), I know that I have a tattoo on my left arm that says “living is poetry” and I know that I believe that. I know that to survive every story is to write it. To survive the world is to shape it. Dive into the red clay. Hold your heart up to the sun and count its fingers. Release it as it wanders through the earth a sculptor. Accept it when it comes back dirty and caked with living. Listen when it tells you: Creation stains the heart. Leave these palms open, always, no matter how red they may be.

Chelsea Walker is a senior Literature student at University of North Carolina, Asheville. Recreational poet and child of the mountains, she enjoys dissecting Appalachian literature, swimming in the river with her dog, and trying to fit the strange world on a page. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to intern for The Great Smokies Review this year.