top of page

A quarterly international literary journal

Wooden Castles

/ Fiction /

I’m sure you don’t think of me any longer, but today I’m thinking of you. I don’t know what it is about memories: how they somehow cling to the base of our stomachs; how they sometimes scorch our palms, the whorls on our fingertips. Memory severs. Did you know that? Just like that gash in the wall broke us, memories fracture too.

Honestly, I don’t know why I’m thinking of you. Maybe because I saw her. It was one of those uncanny moments—something once dreamt, but never true. I was sitting in the outpatient waiting room—doing another test for the ailments I don’t really have—and I saw her. We were best friends when we were little. Now, she’s a woman. She carried stacked pillows and blankets pressed against her chest, seemingly floating in my periphery. I feared she was a ghost from my past. Then I saw her mother walking behind her with a much slower gait, shoulders hunched in pain.

We made eye contact, her mother and me. Brief, but real. She looked at me long enough to allow me to see her illness: dull, blemished skin told me of a certainty that felt all too familiar. Her scalp was nearly bald save a few fine hairs; the swollen puffs of her cheeks overwhelming the space meant for her shrunken eyes, and yet—she stood upright. I knew the irony of her body like I knew my own image in the mirror. Inside, I was shrieking: the swelling of this muted scream billowing over my larynx, my organs: my will to exist. (Silence is a promise between my body and this world; I can’t escape.)

In that moment, I remembered our oaths from girlhood. Never date each other’s boyfriends. No secrets. Friends forever. Of all the things we shared, I never imagined we’d share this.

And then I thought of you. Do you remember why I smashed my fist into our kitchen wall? We weren’t even fighting. You were making chili, and you asked me if I wanted you to add cinnamon and cumin. Do you remember that? I don’t know what came over me. I’m so sorry. I remember hating you for worrying about cinnamon and cumin and whatever the hell else you were adding to our meal. I just wanted you to feel the constriction of breath that I felt. I wanted you to feel the kaleidoscope of gurgled, choking whimpers—to see that I was stifling back tears. I wanted you to feel as if you were mere mire—muddy water, sloppy earth—uselessly taking up space after a storm.

​ That’s how I felt, you know. Even though I never told you, I expected you to know. I realize how silly it is, but when I punched my final slivers of strength into the cohesive stability, I just wanted you to witness the intricacies of my suffocation. To realize the insidious knots twined around vulnerable slats of bone—true and false, even floating—disrupting life, displacing me. You didn’t of course. Instead, you looked at me with hopelessness: as if I was speckled, rancid waste. When I collapsed to the floor holding my bloodied fist—scrunched raw skin and unsheathed streaks of layered reds and pinks—you turned off the burner and walked away. You walked away. Where did you go?

​ I kept waiting for you to come back—to understand how my fractured hand was the most intact part of me. I thought that you might bring me peroxide or ice—bandage my wound as you talked about how much the human body fascinates you. Instead, you left the room—our dinner, me—and you didn’t reappear until the next day. You let me sleep on the kitchen floor—injured hand clutched to my ribcage, blood clotting and drying against yesterday’s clothes and skin. When I woke in the morning, the only evidence that you were in the same room was the half-filled coffee pot, still warm to the touch. I knew then that the fault lines of us had widened too far for repair.

I suppose I’m not entirely surprised. You never understood. Maybe you couldn’t understand how the image of her naked scalp and swollen face haunted me. You never understood my fear that by shaving her head I somehow exposed a part of her that otherwise would have resisted the illness. As if the cells mutated not only within her, but also assaulted her susceptible appearance. I hate to even talk about it—you know, cancer’s a cliché and all; it’s something TV has transformed into a fucking trope. People like you watch from the outside witnessing with some type of disgusting, practically voyeuristic fascination while I’m forever imprisoned in this glass-box reality of surviving a loss I still can’t understand.​

I think I hated you for this too. Because if you truly understood me, you would have remembered a me that rambled on and on about that woman that openly smelled her baby’s butt in public. You would have remembered a me that wrote secrets in coffee and cream before stirring them away. You would have remembered a me that studied a mineral for hours, musing about how you can classify it solely based on how it fractures. You would have remembered a me that studied every crest of earth with the same attention and curiosity that I paid the horizons of your body: never giving up; never letting go. But I forgive you. It wasn’t—isn’t—who you were to understand.

​ I once read an article about suspended animation. Not the creepy kind that we see in movies or bears hibernating or whatever else people think of, but this article explained how medically inducing a temporary inertia can save lives. It explained how doctors replace a human’s blood with something artificial and cold—to keep the body stable and alive. The patient—who was injured violently or perhaps impaled by a weather-whetted cliff (the result of a single slip in her grip)—lies somewhere in an operating room without blood, without brain functions while doctors do who knows what to save them. They literally suspend their lives to save their lives—to help them live again.

It makes me think of the wooden castles that you made me. I remember that morning we were too awed by the allure of the sunrise to sleep any longer, energized by the way the sun held the Pacific in its glowing warmth; by the way the grayness of the water awakened into gold then cerulean right before our eyes. We spent the entire morning sipping Kona lattes and eating fresh pastries and fruit, all the while building sandcastles on the beach outside our room. We each built a sandcastle, and when we were ready, we switched castles and added the finishing details to one another’s.

The sun had almost risen directly above us by the time we were finished. When we looked at one other, we felt a familiar inertia of time and place and all that mattered was the rise and swell between us—the urgency of skin and body. Pulsation. I remember how we made our way back to our hotel room, lying together afterwards. Whispers enmeshed in skin, emblazoned words (still pure, like morning dew) mimicked the same pulse and surge of the Pacific. We basked in our ignorance until midday. I remember how we ate sticky rice and butterfish with the white sheets draped around our bodies carelessly, for we had no secrets, no shadows. I used chopsticks and you laughed at me because I couldn’t pick up the rice. We ordered Mai Tais and as the rum took hold of me, I became better at gripping globs of white rice with my chopsticks.

When we finally dressed and went back to the beach, our sandcastles were destructed mounds of waterlogged sand. All the details that we spent our morning carving with our fingers were gone. I can’t explain my response—why seeing those once beautiful castles that were naturally only meant to disintegrate and fade back into the ocean, but I cried. Do you remember how you held me against you, saying nothing and hiding my tears from onlookers? Then you lifted me into your arms and carried me back to our room, hiding my face against your chest. (I’ll never forget the taste of my salty tears mixed with the smell of your skin.) You deposited me on our unmade bed. You covered me with the same white sheets that we wore while we ate. And you tucked my body into yours until I fell asleep to the rhythmic thrumming of blood and muscle keeping you alive.

When I woke, the sun was already sinking back into the sea. I found you on the same spot on the beach, carving and whittling driftwood with knives that you bought while I was unconscious. One of the hotel groundskeepers brought you two cords of wood. You later told me about purchasing the wood from him; you told me about how he sat next to you, a sigh rolling through his body before he commenced carving and whittling. You carved without rest, often with the groundskeeper—your newfound friend—by your side. His father accompanied you sometimes, guiding your knives and supplying you with small nails and wood glue and teaching you his native language as you worked.

Soon a crowd formed with faces and bodies coursing in and out as the sun relinquished her reign. I sat on the lanai attached to our room or sometimes a distance away from you on the beach, sketching you into the permanence of time that so often only art can do. You kept working. I flipped through brochures, planning excursions to dip our toes into the black, green, white, and pink sands of the island’s beaches, to swim with the manta rays at night. When I asked you what you were doing, you told me that you were making me castles that would endure. I laced my arms around your neck and whispered I love you into your parted, sunburned lips.

After nearly three days you completed the small, intricately detailed wooden castles. Do you remember how you clutched my hand and pulled me to the beach? Do you remember how you sunk to your knees and offered me two small wooden castles—one for me and one for you? You credited the details to the men that stood proudly next to you. An honor to work with you, they said. Their warm adoration made my skin burn with discomfort. (A sensation that I didn’t yet recognize.)

​ I didn’t cry this time; instead, I dropped to my knees too, bringing my lips to yours. I exhaled into your parted lips, thanking you for the wooden castles constructed above susceptible beach sand. At the time, it never occurred to me that the foundation on which these castles were built was not meant to hold anything for long.

Local newspapers came and took pictures of the castles, us crouched next to them. The hotel made efforts to help them persist long after we left. You embraced the men whose names I never remembered, giving them your knives, laughing with them, clapping your palm against their backs. (People have always liked you; you really are a good person.)

That night we sipped new cocktails with names we had never heard in the hotel bar until my fingertips buzzed and my lips tingled. We fumbled back to our room thinking we would make love, but you vomited instead. You and your weak stomach.

It surprised us that next December when we received a postcard with your castles, a personal note scrawled beneath encouraging us to visit again. We always vowed that we would return to the Big Island before Pele reclaims it. We never did. I guess that’s how it goes—we can’t recreate and recast everything like you did the castles.

When my mom got sick, you pressed your forehead against mine and wept hushed tears. Then you faded from me like the waves that only grace the shore with the type of brevity that quietly injures. I didn’t know it at first—didn’t recognize your withdrawal. It took me far too long to realize that you were not there when the Hospice nurses were teaching me how to use a lift belt, to bathe her and change her diapers. You weren’t there when her legs purpled with lines of death and her hands and feet inverted. You weren’t there on nights that I fought with desperation to give her pain killers and food that she could barely remember how to ingest. On the night when she spoke her last words (let go) that I didn’t know were her last words because I didn’t know that she would revert to unintelligible speech and finally grunts and shouts that corroded the deepest red marrow of my spine. On nights when I whispered poems and prayers into her ears because they told me that her hearing was the last sense she would lose. I read to her and talked to her and prayed to God for strength and acceptance and serenity all the while feeling the coils of what I couldn’t say lacerating me apart from the inside.

How could I have known that you would not recognize my fractures if I couldn’t give them words? Her illness didn’t just consume her—it obliterated all of me that made me…well, me. And when I wanted you to see beneath my ridges and valleys: the concealed under-eye circles; the worried litanies; the bruises; the bones, you asked me if I wanted cinnamon and cumin in my soup.

And on the night that she grayed into a shriveled cask and she only breathed a few times per minute until she stopped breathing entirely and I held her cooling body close to mine and told her everything I could think to say and prayed and wept and finally called Hospice to confirm her death, sitting with the nurse as she destroyed her medications, you whispered with my father and brothers in the other room. I told you I saw doves right before she died; you had laughter in your eyes. So I went home and sat beneath the glorious fucking gash that I punched into the broken wall, howling into the night that snatched my mother from me.

It snowed and snowed for what felt like days and when I finally stood and left my place of worship, you were gone again, returning to work as if it was just another day. Even when you stood next to me at the rosary, the funeral, the reception, the us that once was had washed away into the metaphorical sea of sickness and health. I guess it was death that did us part after all.

You once told me that the most fragile bones in the body—the rib cage, the spinal cord—are stacked atop one another. Columns of support. The strongest bones, however, like the femur (the long bones) can endure more impact. What you didn’t say is that these stacked bones are the bones that protect that which keeps us alive. What you didn’t say is that sometimes these columns cannot protect us from the nebulae of pain that knots and writhes its way through and around, dissevering each fragile bone. Crippling, but not killing.

Suspended animation. I wonder if the castles are still there—if they were meant the permanence that, while beyond their control, they maintained. Still sitting here in this outpatient waiting room to test a sickness that really isn’t, I wonder if you ever think about me. For I am remembering us over and over again. I am humidity clinging to the fabric of ailments and cures. I’m not real (but I am!).

​ I once believed in spiritual intervention, in rosaries and Mother Mary and transubstantiation and penance and, finally, eternal life. So, I’ll pray. I’ll sit. I’ll wait. I’ll recount and remember how this monster called grief tiptoed her way into my body, sunk her fingers into my ribcage, and clutched me in her dominion so tightly and so swiftly that the only thing I could—can—do is hope for a reprieve from this dream-reality.

​ I remember alone in this suspended animation, no form of resuscitation to save me (no paddle, no injection, no transfusion). Even your love cannot reverse this nightmare, for here I wait—in this hospital, in this illimitable space—for tests that will classify me based on how I fractured.

​ I feel the tide coming. I hear my ribs shattering, denying one another support. Splinters of bone slice through muscle, through organs (through me).


bottom of page