Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

A dog named Flush

I just finished “Flush”, a novel by Virginia Woolf. I was surprised to run into “Flush” because I’m fairly acquainted with Woolf’s writing (I’m a huge fan of her Common Readers) but I had never heard much about this one. “Flush” is put out by Persephone Books and like all of their books, is a real gem.

Flush was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel given to her a friend to cheer Miss Barrett up while she lay on her invalid bed doing invalid things. Like writing poetry and reading books and having friends occasionally visit while she cocooned herself up in Paisley Shawls. “Flush” then is the biography of Flush himself and it starts out with his ancestry and their love of chasing rabbits and running free as a breeze. Of course, this very great love of chasing things outdoors runs like quicksilver in Flush’s body but he is destined…for other things. And he resigns himself to the fate of living in a stuffy room and mostly eating and lying about. The first half of the book was difficult for me to get through. This clearly is no life for an energetic young dog. He rarely goes out and when he does in a park, it’s on a chain. Oh, Woolf whips it up all right and the puzzled longing of Flush to gallop about and play goes like nails into the heart. He loves Elizabeth, of course, but in his heart lies many turmoils…not just his need to race about in the sun…but there are jealousies and hurt feelings too.

The claustrophobic feel in the first half the book is pretty hard to get through. Elizabeth Barrett is cooped up in a room and sure, it’s been artistically and tastefully decorated but…it’s just one small room. She’s one of many children and an invalid and it’s hard to exactly know why she’s an invalid. She doesn’t feel well most of the time but it’s hard to think who Would feel good trapped up in a room nearly all the time. And why am I throwing conjectures about her when this book is about Flush? The book is about Flush but because he’s in this sweltering atmosphere, it gives us a good idea what Elizabeth Barrett is stuck in as well.

Release comes in the form of Robert Browning, whom Flush despises at first but who ultimately whisks the pair off for a life in Italy and Elizabeth Barrett’s and Flush Barrett’s lives are ultimately changed…

I galloped through the second half, managing to take a little bit of time to linger in the Florence that Flush hustles through everyday and the Apennines which Flush barely concedes to notice but whom his mistress exclaims over…yes, the first half sets the second half off, like a foil for a jewel.

And there really can be no doubt on how Woolf felt about Victorians and their “invalids” and I really cannot forget how sick I felt over the straightened ribs of that lone room, holding dog and mistress in its crush…and now I’m grateful too that at least one woman and one dog escaped that savage confine.

(yes, it is really them!)

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The Willows Converse Among Themselves

I look across the river and catch sight of the willows, lost in their own world. They have no regard for me. They are speaking to each other in whispers so I hear nothing clearly but I see their long golden-yellow chains wavering over the water. It reflects their light.

There are presences in this world that are not human but sometimes, a human being comes across one of these presences and this is when poetry happens—when we interact with the strange divinity that moves through the world.

I caught sight of the willows and so complete were they within themselves, so beautiful to behold, that my mind stopped dead in its tracks and my heart eased. In the presence of an Other, human commotion becomes impossibly silly and pointless. The past and future converge into the present and there is only now.

I exhale the stress I’ve held this morning as I watch them. The willows, their long hair hanging over their faces, disregard me totally and completely and talk in their slow tree way, something to do with the air, water, and earth. I cannot hear much but what I do hear makes me recall there were other beings on this earth other than myself, older than myself. They exist in this time, in many times, living, dying, always reappearing. The willows hang their hair over the water as they have done for centuries, listening to the currents and moving with the breezes and eddies of the wind.

With a gratefully diminished self, I thank the universe for the ancient poetry that is the willow tree and move forward, reborn, into the bright day.

 

茶の煙柳と共にそよぐ也

the tea smoke

and the willow

together trembling

Issa

(Trans. David G. Lanoue)

Beautiful Dirty Summer

The thick green groves of cup-plants (silphium perfoliatumare) stand eight feet tall and are in their late summer glory. I look up at their bright yellow ray flowers and shield my eyes, the bright flowers sway so high and run so close to the sun. When I squint, the flowers darken into forms without color like the outline of the sun beating through closed eyelids.

I take a step nearer and peer into the leaves. Tiny pools of still water collect where the thick cup leaves meet the stems. It has not rained in the last few weeks and I’m surprised there is any water here at all. For leaves that are not broken or rotted, thimblefuls of water weigh without movement, rimmed with the detritus of summer: a fly’s wing, a wad of spider web, bits of dead grass and portions of pollen.

These tiny pools are water for goldfinches, tiny birds that flash by like rays of light. It hasn’t rained for weeks and this is left, tiny pools of water full of dirty summer. I consider drinking it. With one quick gulp, I’d drink the essence of a passing summer, imbibe what August means, and taste the bitter part of the growing season. This is living but rotting part that underlines all our lives but that no one likes to see, much less taste.

I shift my weight from foot to foot. The sun beats heavily down. The yellow flowers tumble in overhead breezes and the goldfinches live nearby, finding water where they can as the dry weeks pass. My hands drop to my sides and I pass back through the grass, ready for the shade. Perhaps when it rains and all the cup plants are full, I’ll take my drink along with the many others.