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Joe Artz

 

 

The Grove of Dictionaries

   

    She was born with her eyeballs upside down. Other people saw birds, trees, the rising moon. She saw tree roots, curbs, sleeping dogs. This did not disturb her. She preferred sure-footedness, and besides, not everything beautiful was forward or above. Eyeballs down, she saw mosses, stones, tiny flowers, a fecundity of delicate organisms in a universe of turf and soil.

    One morning, in the forest, she came to the foot of a birch tree, its trunk braced up by mossy roots that thrust from the earth to support it. Raising her gaze – something of which she was fully capable, when she wanted, and sometimes when she didn’t – her eyes took in the paste-white bark, streaked with gray, in places peeling, like old paint, into thin curling strips. At head height, she found a rectangular patch of raw wood , from which the bark had been stripped by a sharp tool. Centered in the rectangle, a round mirror hung by a nail. A vertical crack in the mirror split her face between the eyes, throwing half her nose and its nostril left, the other half and its nostril right. Half the mirror cast her face in shadow, the other in morning light. Horrified, violated, she twisted away, walked off, eyes fixed on the safety of soil.

    She came to three rocks, resting against one another, forming a grotto within which was hidden a cylinder of birch bark, which proved to be a scroll. Gently, she spread the scroll open on the soft moss of the forest floor. Held flat by her palms, the birch bark scroll was the exact size of the rectangular scar on the trunk of the nearby tree. The smooth underside was dense with words written in a strong hand in persimmon ink. Thirteen words in all, with pronunciations, definitions, etymologies, beginning with “decrease,” ending with “decretory.” In this partial dictionary, two words were roots of the other thirteen. Five words were derived from “decree;” six from “decrease.”

    Only one word, “decrepitate” was unfamiliar to her. She read from the bark, “Decrepitate: to roast or calcine a crystal of salt until it disintegrates with an audible crackling.” Really? Once she got home, she would set fire to the salt box and listen. Her eyes moved on to the etymology “Mid 17th century,” the unknown scribe had written, “from de- ‘away’ + Latin crepitate- ‘crackled,’ from the verb crepitare ‘to rattle.’” The etymology described the dry bark on which the words themselves were written. The scroll crackled if she pressed down too hard, and hairline splits threatened to widen into fractures if she held the scroll flat much longer. She eased the pressure of her palms, allowing the length of bark to curl slowly back into its cylinder, which she returned safely to its grotto.

    Raising her eyes to look around, she saw she stood in a small grove of birches, each tree scarred by a rectangular patch, in the center of which hung a mirror. Near each tree was a stack of three rocks, open beneath. She counted the birches, and was not overly surprised to find they numbered twenty-six. She checked several rock piles and found that each harbored a scroll the same length as the rectangular patch of the nearest tree, each undoubtedly contained a fragment of a dictionary. Her eyes rose higher, toward the grove’s leafy canopy. She imagined the limbs spreading from the trunks as words in a dictionary, bifurcating toward the sky in a pattern determined by a genetics of etymology and usage. Beyond the canopy of silver-backed leaves, gray wisps of cloud drifted under a low-hanging ceiling of whiter clouds, mimicking the pattern of color on birch bark.

    She gathered flat stones from the forest floor, propping them over the opening of each scroll’s dark grotto. At sunset, the twenty-sixth scroll protected, she sheltered for the night in a small cave she’d noticed, just outside the grove, a cave formed by three boulders, resting against one another. Inside, she found a blanket, musty, but warm, canned foods, a can opener, salt, and matches. She gathered wood from outside the grove to start a fire to warm some food. She decrepitated some salt. She ate, rolled herself up in the blanket, and slept.

    The next few days, she worked among the birches. She cleared away fallen twigs and dried leaves that might be tinder for forest fires. With a small axe and saw she found in the cave, she cut down saplings of oak and maple that, allowed to grow, might shade out the birches. She also knelt by each rock pile, withdrew its scroll from its grotto, opening it just enough to glimpse the first letter of the words written on it, before returning it to safety. In this way she learned the names of the twenty-six trees.

    One afternoon, on a windless day, a strange rustling of leaves drew her from her cave. Four trees, and only four, were stirring as if in a breeze. One after another, they bent their boughs toward her, each in turn, in a sequence they repeated again and again until she began to make out words. The Y tree’s leaves murmured “you.” The A tree whispered, “are,” the T tree exhaled “the,” and the fourth tree, K, breathed out “Keeper.” The words spread a soothing coolness across her face. “You are our Keeper,” the four trees repeated one last time, then the limbs of all twenty-six birches tossed, gleeful, in a strong gust that sprang from nowhere. She smiled so broadly that the corners of her mouth lifted the down-drooping corners of her eyes. She saw clearly what lay ahead. Forest fires would advance in swift infernos toward the grove. She would make fire breaks. Insects would bore into the bark. She would pluck and kill them. She would be keeper of all the grove, not just its floor. She knew what was needed. Crying joyful tears, briny with indecrepitable salt, she rolled her eyes right side up in head. She was prepared.

 

 

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Joe Artz works for EarthView Environmental, and has viewed the earth as an archaeologist for a long time. He lives with his wife Cherie in Iowa. Their proudest accomplishment is releasing two daughters on an unsuspecting world. His fiction has appeared in print in the Wapsipinicon Almanac and Prompt Press, and in several on-line venues, including his blog joeartz.wordpress.com. 

 

Process Statement: Maybe because I am archaeologist, working in excavated squares, I am drawn to artworks that divide their medium into quadrilaterals.  Holly Robert’s Woman with Three Faces was such a work. The background is divided in half: birch bark on the right, a column from a dictionary on the right. The faces of the collage are also presented in halves. On the right, a photograph of a woman faces toward us; on the left is another face in profile: a face made from birchbark, through the triangular nose of which is glimpsed the dictionary.
Right away, I knew that birch bark and a dictionary would be part of my story. Although the face in profile, with its triangular beak, reminded me of the hawk-nosed warriors one sees on pre-Columbian pots and engraved shells from the Mississippian period, I did not want a warrior in my story. Instead, it was the woman on the right, and in particular her right eye, the one with eyelid and eyelash that seemed to droop too far down at the corner. Seeing that eye, my main character sprang to life, fully imagined, raring to go, bringing with her the first line of the story. 

Woman-with-Three-Faces.6x6_2014 (1).jpg

All Responses:

Respond to a Prompt:

Submit your response to our current prompt(s). See our Submissions Guidelines page for details.

Joe Artz works for EarthView Environmental, and has viewed the earth as an archaeologist for a long time. He lives with his wife Cherie in Iowa. Their proudest accomplishment is releasing two daughters on an unsuspecting world. His fiction has appeared in print in the Wapsipinicon Almanac and Prompt Press, and in several on-line venues, including his blog joeartz.wordpress.com. 

 

Process Statement: Maybe because I am archaeologist, working in excavated squares, I am drawn to artworks that divide their medium into quadrilaterals.  Holly Robert’s Woman with Three Faces was such a work. The background is divided in half: birch bark on the right, a column from a dictionary on the right. The faces of the collage are also presented in halves. On the right, a photograph of a woman faces toward us; on the left is another face in profile: a face made from birchbark, through the triangular nose of which is glimpsed the dictionary.
Right away, I knew that birch bark and a dictionary would be part of my story. Although the face in profile, with its triangular beak, reminded me of the hawk-nosed warriors one sees on pre-Columbian pots and engraved shells from the Mississippian period, I did not want a warrior in my story. Instead, it was the woman on the right, and in particular her right eye, the one with eyelid and eyelash that seemed to droop too far down at the corner. Seeing that eye, my main character sprang to life, fully imagined, raring to go, bringing with her the first line of the story. 

Woman-with-Three-Faces.6x6_2014 (1).jpg