Snap the Whip JM Miller
Through the window is the magnolia tree, but I only know this through reflection. The backdrop is the upper portion of a brick-red house, its columnar chimney like a skyscraper from this perspective. Magnolias bloom twice each year; the fall and spring. The blossoms unfold white bundles of clean slates that spread open like a deck of cards. There’s a trick there: now you see it, now you don’t; a branch only hangs on for so long, then lets the flower go. Nothing in Wilmington seems to die the way I expect it to.
The landscape is laid perfectly over this screen where my words appear: brick triangle interrupted by tall rectangle, obscured by flat leaf patterns which sometimes move, all this framed by a window, all that framed by my laptop screen. This is how I prefer to write: laying letters across an already finished canvas. One thought on top of another, tangling realities into DNA strands that—twisted together like a wind chime in a storm—create an unexpected music: something like meaning.
My parent’s home in Kansas is held together by habits. My dad has woken up at the same time every morning during their thirty-six-year marriage. In cold months, he puts on a robe that is identical to the first robe my mom ever bought him; rusted burgundy, soft material, not too thick. He goes to work after cold cereal and coffee while mom sleeps late into the morning. The first time they see each other will be 6 o’clock.
I am wary of returning home after three years. I sit in a blue airport chair trying to invest some attention in a newspaper, but fidget instead with my nails and the silver zippers on my backpack. Will my parents look old? Will I fall back into my old family role? I feel I might be losing something. I gently bend my metal-rimmed glasses at the nose, and they noiselessly snap into two pieces in my hands, leaving me to travel home with little to see but what’s right before me.
I read an article about a man who was murdered in Texas; his body was left to waste in New Mexico. It mentions little of his life, what he left behind. Did he have close family? A wife? He worked as a restaurant executive, and I halt at the word executive, as it swerves dangerously close to execute: a word doubling-over itself with heaviness. It comes to English in the twelfth-century to mean carry out, perform. One hundred years later, the term evolves: to put to death. In 1776 American English applies the word into a judicial landscape: a person responsible for putting laws into effect. Executive and executioner; scissor blades fanning in and out from the handle.
In 1898, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina. It was wealthy and destined to fall apart. Cape Fear River snaked through the state and carved a port into the city, driving tobacco and lumber sales. The first black lawyer in North Carolina lived and worked in Wilmington. The Daily Record was a small newspaper produced by the local African-American community and was printed in a house on Castle Street. Whites and blacks actually shared some types of power. But in 1898 in the south, this sort of idealism came with trapdoors. In November, a white supremacy group gathered at the armory, marched downtown with guns and flags. They burned the black printing press, killed black citizens, overthrew local government. They ripped a seam through town that still exists. Today, neighborhoods are segregated by race and poverty, and the black middle class is very small. Many of the white citizens who seized the government have buildings named after them.
A friend of mine lives on Castle Street, across from the printing press. The building still retains burn marks and is littered with broken glass. The press is back up and running, but wary of people asking questions. My friend has an old door in her hallway. You can trace the smooth craters of bullet heads with your finger like a scar, sometimes seeing light through fractures.
I arrive in Atlanta for a brief layover and can see only shapes. The flight departures are written imperceptibly small and are listed fifteen feet from the ground, so I ask a man to please check my flight for me. He has on a red sweater, which seems festive, and I assume he is friendly. My dad calls and says that the roads in Kansas might be icy and that he will keep me updated. The roads in Kansas are usually icy in winter, the landscape bleak. There’s uncanny silence before movement, and always the silence after.
When an event becomes forgotten, the language shifts. The massacre—anywhere from twenty-two to hundreds of black casualties—has historically been called a race riot, and is now being re-labeled a coup d’etat. The change in language apparently being more accurate and appealing: the coup d’etat in Wilmington was the only one in United States history, and this is how the history books will now write it: a struggle predominantly about government power rather than racial tensions. Colpus is Latin, a blow with the fist.
A man, fifty-five-years old, drives out to the New Mexico desert. A landscape nearly invisible at night; cacti poking at stars, the rolling land buffeted by unexpected plateaus. He pulls his car over, probably a black or silver SUV with a Texas license plate, in a place far from city lights, miles from the truck stop, but not far from the road. He wants to be found. After twenty paces, he ties knots around the trigger. The helium balloons should be just strong enough. He points to the back of his head, balloons pull the gun into the atmosphere, blotting stars while leaning into dry, desert wind.
Murder is public because the factors are out of control of the victim. Someone is to blame and answers are sought out. Suicide however, is solitary. Its complication is privately resonant because it exists within itself, inside itself. It is a self-choice, similar to the way getting up in the morning is a choice. I had a conversation with a roommate once about suicide. I lay on the cold, wood floor staring at the ceiling, needing, I suppose, openness to consider the impulse. Her father was schizophrenic. He committed suicide eight years ago. He died at his job—a school—he wanted to be found. My mother, also schizophrenic, has survived one attempt. After a troubling phone call that morning, I worried it would happen again, so I lay on my roommate’s floor staring at her ceiling. The people who lived here before us had stars stuck to the white ceiling, which now existed only as sticky circles. Centers left behind from the glue, carved points removed, inexact.
My family lived twice in Arizona. The first time when I was eight and everything was falling apart. The day my brother fell from his bicycle into the drainage ditch is a surreal memory, one that—visually—fits together: brother is around the corner, I turn corner, brother ascends from the ditch without bike, has goose egg on forehead, brother cries, I get mom for help, everyone goes inside the house. But emotionally I can’t understand how it all happened. How my brother could have been so helpless. How angry and out of control my mother looked. Why didn’t he carry his bike out from the ditch? Why did he feel guilty for falling?
I unclick my seatbelt in unison with the other passengers; the moment just before the cabin door opens. The sound is a line of dominoes falling into each other; chain reactions of moments setting the future in motion. I walk out of the terminal and look for the shape of my parents: tall, lanky father standing to the right of my mother, heavy with weight and self-doubt. Their faces imaginary until I step right up to them, not sure if the person I was on the plane reflected the one here, hugging my dad, watching my mom cry in relief, despair. Her eye shadow is lavender, our favorite color.
When I was in the third grade, my mom was descending into madness. My brother and I would cry at the dinner table if we detected any change in her mood. We didn’t have language for her illness, only grief. My third grade teacher gave us a project: tie a message to a balloon and send it into the sky. We were to learn, I suppose, the act of making something and letting it go. The act of wishing. I wrote a message for my family. I sent my message far up until it disappeared.
I saw Snap the Whip once at the Met. Winslow Homer painted the American pastoral the way Mark Twain wrote it. I had always wanted to feel the tension of the painting in person; the way two boys stand in the back, holding the line; another boy in a startlingly white shirt centers the break; a group of boys swing the momentum; two boys tumble into the ground. A human whip where each individual movement has a purpose in the motion. And when I saw the painting I cried because there we all were. My father holding the line, my brother centering the break, me running ahead, my mother taking the fall. We are all there, and there are flowers and stones all around the frame.
Walking a short distance through New Mexico just off the interstate, someone sees a curious tangle around a cactus. Looking closer, strings are wound around the thorns on one arm of the cactus, where maybe once a wren’s nest nestled inside. Maybe once an impossibly small beak broke the egg’s shell. Attached to one end of the strings were deflated balloons, which at this point look like used socks. Dangling down the back of the cactus is a gun attached to the string. The man wanted to be found, but not found out.
And the sky. Through the leaves in the computer screen, dappled, waving, shifting, is the sky which is a quiet, easy blue. I just tilt the lens up a bit and it is there. All of this happening underneath some version of it. Something just over every ridge—the landscape holding our losses.
I never stopped looking for the message. I knew that it fell somewhere: a balloon can only float so far. I biked through every street, walked into a multitude of deserts looking. I wanted my message back.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.
The Ninth Life, Donald J. Mitchell
Peter Mountford with Connor Guy