The Last Fragile Thing

By Erin Calabria

I knew he was going to leave even before that winter, the air stitched with sleet while the two of us led the horses back and forth from old Hugh’s stable down a washed-out road, our feet freezing in boots lined with plastic bags until spring came and we mucked the stalls of shit caked gold and steaming almost to our knees, which was how old Hugh liked it in the cold, claiming it kept his ancient spindle of a pony warm, not that we’d had any choice of course, not for nearly a year since our father’s barn burned to the ground, smoke gushing thick like a wound that can’t be staunched, black and more black tumbling over the trees, the neighbors calling at first to see if only the sugarhouse might’ve gone up, a chimney burn, a fallen nest, until the whole town gathered in the yard, crushing down all the new grass just sprouted through grains of thawing snow, since by then there was nothing to do but watch, though no one ever knew whether it was a spark from the evaporator fire flown up into the loft, or whether it was that uncanny alchemy of hay cut in sunshine but baled after a storm, the way tiny cells trapped among the blades feed on the damp within and burst, and of course I wouldn’t think of the night before, of any stray cigarettes when I’d heard and then not heard his footsteps somewhere out by the fence line, which wasn’t strange anymore, not for a long time at least, since  most nights now he walked out in the dark alone, following old deer trails and dried up vernal streams, his boots when he came back smelling of moss and rain, shirtsleeves and hair studded with burrs, and I knew and I didn’t know why, I knew vanishing was just another way to both want and not want to be loved, but we hardly said a word those months we took the horses down the abandoned road, each time dodging our way among ruts, each time hoping they wouldn’t throw a shoe against a stone or a wedge of ice, the Belgian in them so far eclipsing the Morgan till they’d gotten big the way mountains are, if mountains had hoofs and could kick, like those times when they broke through the fence and struck straight for the alfalfa fields up the hill, spooking a little when we tried to bring them back, snorting, pulling, shaking their heads, and sometimes one of them sidestepped and for weeks my toes glowed a shifting, grackle-wing blue, but by summer the insurance cleared, by the Fourth the town came back and raised a new barn, strawberry ice cream and lemonade in the shade, the frame pulled up and topped out with an evergreen all in a day, and our father was sunburned and sweat-beaded and happy, the horses’ skin shivered with more than just flies, and I knew it wouldn’t be long now, I knew there are ways to lose that do not belong to sparks or hay or cigarettes, there are some empty places you can visit but never build from, and who would have known except me and the horses flicking their tails in the grass that the last thing he did in that fresh-built barn was to set free a swallow caught in the loft, was to dangle his legs from the rafters and swing a net till he snagged it, then he placed that bird in my hands like the most or the last fragile thing in the world, the eyes of it darker even than smoke, the shape and the hum of blood in it like nothing else but a heart, and the two of us looked at it just for one breath, hoping our palms hadn’t marked it against its brothers before he opened the hay loft door, before he told me to give it a toss but gentler, and then to watch it go.

 

Erin Calabria grew up in rural Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Magdeburg, Germany. She studied writing at Marlboro College and radio documentary at the Salt Institute. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Atlas and Alice, 100 Word Story, Luna Luna Magazine, and other places. She tweets @Erin_Calabria.

Art: “Bluebells from Below” by Michelle Johnsen

Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.