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suzanne honda / essay

The Tern

The boy is standing in the marsh in someone else’s boots, and the surface of the otherwise still water is upset by dragonflies and damselflies and air bubbles made by tiny fish. Walking through the mud, the boy disturbs the silt. It blooms in clouds of gray, gritty and opaque. All around the boy, the lily pads hover, their flat heads curling at the edges, framed in red or gold, linked one to the next by thick pools of weed.

The boots are good boots, sturdy boots, and the boy’s feet are dry under the sucking pressure of the marsh. They are his brother’s boots, and his brother is also good, and sturdy, standing like he does at the edge of the drive with the garage open behind him, the tools in their careful drawers, the saws and shovels hung on the walls, the cars sitting up on blocks. There is a cat that lives in the bushes beside the house, and in the winters it is allowed in the kitchen, where it curls on the boy’s knees and purrs, its left ear missing a tip, its paw pads rough and dirty.

When the boy leaves the house in the morning, before dawn, he slides his feet into his brother’s boots and finds there is no room left in the toes, no place for his heels. In the waters his feet begin to cramp, the knuckles bent inwards, the arches folded up into the thin bones that run into his ankles, for which he has no name. There are fish here in the water, but the boy has no time for hooks and bait and poles; he is here for the birds: the gulls, the swallows, the little martins so loud along the far edge of the water, darting in and out of their houses, chasing away the robins flying towards their nests somewhere in the pines beyond — but mostly for the terns which he has heard nest nearby, eager to find at last the dark line of their elegant heads, the curve of their thin beaks.

All summer, his brother says, the terns float and soar, rarely landing. The boy wants to know this flight – this constant motion. In his mind at night when he lays in bed, he imagines it: his body, swooping and dipping, alight, his wings twice the length of his body. What the wind must feel like. In the room across the hall his brother snores with his feet hanging over the edge of the bed. Dirty feet. Feet with thick callouses that crack along the heels. Long feet. Feet which walk his brother towards the garage in the mornings and into town at night, pressed into the pedal of his rusted Buick. Feet which wear their boots down to soles and then holes; the boy says this to himself: soles and holes, holes and soles, as though it were an epithet. Once the boy walked in on his brother in the bath, the water high and brown, his brother’s large body spilling over its sides. What the boy remembers are his brother’s feet: propped up on the wall, higher than the spigot, the hair at his ankles and on his toes dark. His brother’s eyes were closed. The light of the bathroom flickering, the moth at the open window, the pink rugs on the floor matching the pink tiles on the wall, the smell of the sweet soap. When the boy pressed his face into the towel hung on a nail in the wall later, it smelled like his brother, but also damp, like the marsh, like the earth drying out on the bottom of his soles.

In their kitchen are bowls the boy makes in school, in the art classes offered by the district, which take place after school with an older woman who speaks in soft tones and offers the students grapes and juice (apple, sometimes cranberry) in little paper cups. The boy likes the wheel the best, the muck of the clay on his palms and forearms, its dust. How it reminds him of the marshlands, the great blue herons hidden beneath the willows, their presence betrayed by a single splash. In his hands the clay is wet and slippery, and the boy has to use all of his focus to press it into a bowl, leaning forwards into the motion of it, his breath stilling his mind, the air a void into which he disappears. Later, he paints the bowls in bright colors, stacking them in the cupboards without comment.

Though the boy has waited for months, he has never seen a tern. He is beginning to wonder if they are make-believe, a story his brother tells him to distract him when the house is thick with the memory of what is no longer there. His brother puts his hands to his mouth and mimics the bird’s call, and it is like nothing the boy has heard before. Otherworldly. Standing in the marsh with the water up to his knees, the boy strains to listen beyond the call of the red-winged blackbirds as they sway in the cattails. There are crickets and cicadas, grasshoppers and geese. Across the marsh, a family of swans drift, though the boy is not foolish enough to mistake their lack of aggression for peace. Behind the male, six cygnets float, the water disturbed by their small legs. There are ducks here, too – mallards, wood ducks. The boy has brought a pen and notebook which sits up on the bank with his lunch, a bag with two pickles and a bologna sandwich, no mustard. When he sees the tern, his plan is to sketch it. Pin it to the wall in his bedroom next to the drawings he’s made of his other treasures: a painted turtle, an eagle, a red-tailed hawk. There is space yet held for a great horned owl, a screech owl, an egret and a fox.

In the evenings after his brother returns, the two young men sit on the back porch, which is really just a three-by-three slab of concrete raised eight inches from the grass, stroking the cat or crumbling dead leaves between their fingers. Sometimes the boy’s brother will smoke, offering the boy a drag, but the boy doesn’t like the taste, and after seeing a poster at school, does not like to imagine his lungs black and shriveled, incapable of taking in air. He would rather be gilled, finned, hidden in the dark passages of the water, where the silt settles and the sand sleeps.

Later, in the bathtub before bed, the boy swims, sloshing the water over the edge and onto the floor. He spins onto his back and drifts down under the water until it covers everything but his nose. He knows how important it is, a clear airway. Underwater the boys cracks his knuckles, cracks his toes, and the sound is both louder and dull, a slow echo. He can hear the vibration of his brother’s footsteps, and the boy follows them up the stairs, through the kitchen, down the hall. They pause at the door to the bathroom, and then there is a knock, once, twice. The boy sits up, letting the water drip down his shivering shoulders. His brother is going out for the night. He’ll be back later. Lock the doors, make sure to keep the windows closed.

The boy nods, though no one can see him. Listens as his brother’s foot falls fade, retracing their path down the hall and through the kitchen. The storm door slams, then the garage door. A moment later the Buick starts. Wheels on gravel. Beyond the house the headlights flip and fade into the moonless night.

The house is quiet. The boy lifts his hands up out of the water. Slams them back down. The water splashes up onto his chest, mimicking his movement. The boy flicks the stopper with his foot. Turns. On his back with his face under the spigot, he reaches up. Turns the water on high. The taste is sharp, like rust and salt. The boy lets it run over his face, into his ears, up his nose. All around him the water is rushing, wearing down his rock face, etching rivulets and rivers into his skin. Eyes closed, he wills himself to breathe, breathe, breathe, and the water fills the tub, running over its ceramic arms, onto the floor, over the rugs, gathering in the corner where the boards dip at the wall separating the bathroom from the boy’s room; the water pauses, bloating the paneling, the drywall.

When it breaks, the boy follows the its path into the hall, past his brother’s room, into his own, where the boots lay sideways on the floor, and the mattress sags, and the window is open, not closed. The boy is a fish, rising with the lake he has created, floating, drifting, until it is high enough greet the window sill; until it pours out into the night. Then the boy swims, swims with all his might, through the broken screen, into sky, past the bird pinned hastily to the wall, its wings lopsided, its elegant head capped black, then white, frozen in flight beneath bold letters gone over twice.


Suzanne Honda (she/her), is a poet and author of the recent chapbook When We Were Birds (Porkbelly Press, 2022). Her writing is a meditative study of spirituality examined through the dual lenses of femininity and nature. She holds awards from Crab Creek Review, the Atlanta Review, and, most recently, Writer's Digest, and has work published and/or forthcoming in Soundings East, SWWIM Every Day, and Waxing & Waning, among others.

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