An Introduction to "Spaces for Sanctuary"

I held my bottle of SPF 45 and a three-foot long knife. A few days later I learned the tool was called a machete, which made me want to paint my face with mud and wear camouflage pants. I didn't cut down unwanted weeds in a sea of soybeans — the ones that all the chemical pesticides couldn't kill. I hunted them, sniffing them out and sneaking in with guerilla tactics. Sliding the sunburned metal into the Button weed, sunflower, marijuana heart. The blade shone with sticky wetness, plant blood if you will. I would. I did. And I enjoyed it, except that I smelled like Chris's basement. He owned a gold elephant keychain that opened like the animal had been sliced elegantly in half. He smoked what he kept in the elephant. The yellow pollen that saturated my sweaty skin stank like the inside of that elephant, thick and lingering. I rubbed my cap against my forehead and held it between my dirt-encrusted knees. I needed more sunscreen. I always needed more sunscreen.

My necessary addiction to things coconut scented followed me into the field and reminded my coworkers that I had high maintenance skin. My freckles were their concern, and roughly every four hours a voice would rise over the tractors and pipe trailers and my bottle of sunscreen sailed toward me. Thanks to this game, a bit of the topsoil on the land we worked was equally protected. It also meant I got to take a quick break, slathering the melted goop into the dirt that clung to the previous layer. For seven years I exfoliated my cheeks, chin and ears with South Central Nebraskan dirt. Rubbing in the ammonia, pesticides, and well water that ensured a higher yield. Even my lips couldn't escape the tendency to freckle. My hands remain two different colors. Skin, just like any mind, has its bi-polar tendencies and slides in and out of frame if it has too much room to move.

That must have been the reason we all needed some kind of protection from the fields: you couldn't stand still in a place that owns so much room. We conformed to the empty space around us, leaking out like antifreeze, sweet to taste with varying amounts of food coloring dripped and swirled in slowly for affect. Confined by the steep rows we stumbled through, ankles leaning side to side, only feet felt claustrophobic. They suffocated in the thin dust devils that made tourists passing through tremble at the imposter tornados. We ate and drank the dust daily with our lunches of cold leftovers, a can of cheap beer, and water from the kind of tap you can find at campsites. It either drips or sputters, soaking through your shoes while your hands form a cup to drink from. Sucking hardened water over sensitive teeth, we slipped on our thick leather gloves and slithered back into the fields, between the leaves that clung together as a breathing green fortress.

I pressed the back of my gloved hand against my mouth and lowered it again. The snow that clung to the grey wool scratched my icy skin. Red. I couldn't even taste it, that metallic tinge in blood that even anemics can decipher, but there it was, already soaked into my gloved hand. It had mixed with the snow and froze on impact. Brett rolled onto his back beside me in the snow bank Alex had driven us into. We thought then that towing the sled behind my sister's Jeep could be the only way to go sledding properly, so we pulled the thick plastic sleds out of Brett's garage and found a toe rope on the Jet Ski at Alex's summer cabin. The yellow nylon had cut my finger to the bone the summer before when I wouldn't let Alex throw me off the skis. I had refused, and on the snow bank I likewise refused to swallow the blood that dripped so insistently from my faucet nose. On my knees, head tilted forward the red stained the new snow even further. Our version of the best way to spend a snow day might have been a little less eventful if I had taken the steering wheel from Alex's slightly irrational hands.

A faint sound of angry four letter words drifted to Brett's ears and he chuckled at the boys. They had forced their way out of the gray Jeep that rested on its side, the way I remember it, the process took at least fifteen minutes.

"Laughter means you're fine, right?" I had asked Brett, no attempt to hide my motherly instinct.

A yelled reply came without an answer, "Are you serious?"

Alex lifted his arms and pointed at the space between the fields around us and the road. "Yeah, you wanna point out the ditch to me?"

No one really needed an answer as the same series of questions flew back and forth like the stray snowflakes that followed four feet of snow. We had all known each other since our first days at Aurora Elementary School when we still had mandatory naptime. Nothing ever came out of fights like the one on the snow day. Everyone had been bored and frustrated, so I had driven around town in four-wheel drive picking up the pent up, competitive attitudes. The negative 16-degree wind chill made the best drifts, it had blown us out of school for the day because the country kids couldn't drive on the roads. There was no road, really, just flat snow and the occasional drift. Flat, white perfection, even across the corn fields and ditches nine feet deep and deeper. The ditch was deeper to the Jeep. The driver's side wheels lying nearly flat against the top of the drift, it had drowned. Alex had pushed it deeper into the snow like he pushed my head under water when we were younger, the move that makes you think you'll never breathe air again. I never found that funny.

"Hey, your face is bleeding" Ryan said with his pink-rimmed ski goggles pushed up on his forehead and a chapped lip grin. Sarcasm never failed people like him.

"Thanks, I wasn't sure." I had grabbed a handful of snow and tumbled, in my five layers of clothing into the snow so that the bank became a backrest.

The three boys mimicked my position as their breathing eventually slowed, hidden from the wind that stole air from our lungs. We were four dark, shapeless bumps that waited patiently for rescue. I didn't know where we sat, or where the gray jeep started to disappear into the snow that had slowly covered our tracks, filling them in like spackling would. Everything looked the same when it snowed in Nebraska. The roads had no distinguishing marks but followed their grid perfectly. Ryan took off his stocking cap, the blue one with a maroon stripe about an inch above the edge. His black hair stuck tight to his head, his sweat overtaking static buildup. Someone had mentioned that this was how people froze to death in the most casual tone. Someone else said we weren't lost, so that rule didn't apply. Alex fumbled with zippers as he searched for his cell phone, the screen sluggish thanks to the cold. I didn't move from the spot but had hit my head against the snow until I could look up. Blood slid down my throat, at least it had quenched my thirst. We had waited without speaking. We spent a lot of time waiting that year, waiting to graduate, waiting to know where home would move to, not waiting to get older, just to feel justified for how old we felt. Huddled into the snow, we had been glad we didn't have to stand unprotected in the field we faced.

Two years later and a mile away one of our classmates, the one who walked down the isle behind me at graduation, stood with a cornfield behind his back and swallowed the barrel of his Dad's handgun. It took me a minute when I heard the story over the phone to remember his face. My own father, Dave, had taken his nine-year-old German Shorthair out for a run in the snow when she had suddenly shown excitement over a lump in the eight inches that had fallen straight to the ground without wind the night before. Dave's first though: some kind dead animal, probably a deer by the size of the lump. The dog was in hunting mode and had stiffly pointed the pile in an effortless act. As he walked to where she stood with only three feet on the ground, he had called her off of the scene and knelt down to dig into the snow he realized what species of eyes he saw. The frozen face of a boy he recognized, bluish and bloodless had stared blankly back at him.

Sarah Gerlack's little brother didn't freeze to death, not like the people that constantly littered the news in the midst of every Nebraskan winter. We had incorporated the common headlines into our humor, we still yelled to each other to hurry to the car because you only had only three minutes until your blood froze. But the drunks along the side of the highways and interstates didn't understand that, they hadn't seen the minute warnings that jogged across the bottom of every television channel. Casually, they stepped out of their car that had lodged itself in a snow bank or run out of gas unexpectedly. Michael Wamsley and Janelle Hornickel had gotten lost in a mountain of snow and attempted to walk in a direction that had probably looked promising at the time, roughly five miles away. Inevitably, they were disoriented, unable to see a single house and inadequately dressed for the cold wind that could sift through the thickest layered sweater.

The young couple called 911, but their confused, drugged voices had gotten lost over the line and the calls bounced between telephone towers, untraced. Both were found within a week. Michael's snow covered body surfaced on January sixth, six days later a local spotted Janelle's form lying at the edge of a sand pit lake two miles from their truck. The CBS news release about the incident made it into a scandal, the 911 dispatchers and rescue teams entirely to blame. When I read the story, the detail about the sand pit lake had annoyed me as it lazily floated unattached at the end of the journalist's sentence. Every lake minus one that I have ever visited in my home state was man-made, dredged out and the soil covered with sand, therefore they were all sand pit lakes. They were deeper, yes, and more steeply progressed from the depths to the shallows than natural lakes, but the one Janelle saw was frozen over and covered with snow. It made no difference to her that there was a lake at all, she most likely never noticed, there had been no strategy in her failed survival technique.

No one, including the teenagers, had known where they continued to stumble through the snow and ice. Everyone said "what a shame", but people didn't blame the rescue trucks that never left their heated garage in the northern part of Sarpy County. A sister said she thought the incident could start a crusade to change Nebraska's 911 system and its technology to trace calls from cell phones, but it looked suspiciously like a one-woman crusade. The young couple, both nineteen years old had wandered through their high on crystal methamphetamine without the proper clothing or thought process to protect them from the elements.

My classmate didn't freeze to death like the two juniors from Creighton University. He was perfectly protected from the cold in a heavy black coat, the kind snowboarders wear in Aspen, and a hunter's wool gloves and scarf. He was protected from the cold but not from his roaming mind. He got out into the open and his mind left him there. It crossed the fourteen miles he could see to an imposter horizon and dove into the warm colors without question. Spread too thin to reason with the cold metal in his mouth, his mind had evacuated its unprotected situation.

I listened to my Dad reason about whether or not Andy had walked the three miles north of town to the open area where a small, shallow pond makes the world look uneven. I wondered if he might have watched the pink and purple of winter sunsets reflecting on the ice, if that's why he had stood with his back to the barren field and triple lined barbed wire fence, facing west. No one commented about the pond or whether or not the bottom was covered in sand. It was irrelevant.

We all responded to space differently growing up. Some, like Andy, could have used protection from it, others used it as protection, anyone's reaction had the potential to change based on the situation that slapped you in the face, requiring a reaction. There was no protocol like the two-hundred-page chemical hygiene plan in the lab I worked in during college. We just had to let it seep in and act accordingly. In a town of little more than four thousand surrounded by endless agriculture, space devoted itself as one of our greatest resources that could never run dry — as the Platte River did every August. We all had experience with empty space and its advantages.

Heiser had shuffled around the corner of Dietrick's house, closely followed by a sneering cop, the glimmer of metal around his wrists like sharp fish scales dug into his skin. He fell to his knees as the uniformed man shoved my classmate from behind. His hands were tightly cuffed behind his back. His breath had left him as his chest hit the ground. The frozen grass as his pillow, Heiser's head lay still while his glazed eyes had searched for the rest of us. A hint of uninformed fear played across his drunken grin.

The seven cops ran around the house and yelled orders to my friends and to each other. Harsh voices bounced off of the trees and into the surrounding fields, rapidly dispersed over the icy rows of shredded stalks.

"They're running, the sons of bitches." A rasping voice had hurdled through the crisp February air. It was a small town, a small county, these men had known our parents.

I had started to shake uncontrollably from the cold. My t-shirt fell incredibly short of helpful in thirty degrees with my back against the brick foundation. An execution line, I had thought when I looked down the line of my peers' shoulders hanging away from the wall and noticed that no one else could feel the cold through such intoxicated insulation.

"Stop shaking! Knock it off. I'm not going to tell you again, get your back against the wall!" I had done my best to scowl through chattering teeth but the way I picture my face it must have shown a weak smile.

My only sober ally had formed the line to my right. She fell apart a little, a tendency she still has in high-pressure situations, a habit that had unfortunately comes to mind when she announced she was applying to law school. Neither of us had control over her neuroses.

"Sarah, I'm so sorry I made us come, we should have stayed in town like you said. I'm sorry you are so cold. He is already yelling at you, you didn't do anything. We didn't do anything, oh God . . . " She wasn't making sense. She never made sense really. I learned to lie on my feet at a young age, she leaned to lie on the ground and wait for assistance. A quality that caused frustration but also endearment.

I had pleaded with her to stay calm. She had continued to babble when I turned my head and counted how many of us there were in the line. Only nine. The cops seemed understandably disappointed. My face would have had the same look had I just realized that a late night call to the country police station had only turned out to be a high school party, not the reported meth lab. They got really birdy about meth labs and the dogs got birdy when they found the scent of a pheasant. Almost too excited, too anxious to do their job correctly.

Nine teenagers didn't match up with the more than twenty cars that had parked behind the tree line. I tried to sit still, tailbone against cold concrete, only one of the uniforms paced in front of the line. His ungloved hand had reached for his gun holster and unsnapped the strap. He rested his stiff hand on the black metal. I had imagined his disgusting skin freezing to the weapon and put my head on my knees.

When the cops had finally ushered us into the small house and we were hastily tested for unacceptable alcohol levels, the reality of our position had started to set in. It happened visibly around the room, swollen, blood-shot eyes woke up, stunned into seeing the surrounding situation clearly. The entire silent room had suddenly turned its head and stared at me. Eyes pleaded for help. A uniform and hat peered around the corner. His voice didn't talk to me but pounced at me like a wolf. It sniffed out helplessness and crushed it in his teeth. Lapping it up like milk spilling out the sides of a mouth already too full of water to hold anything more.

The voice told me to send my friends in one at a time, to the scratched kitchen table that had doubled as an interrogation chamber. Two other men in uniform entered the entertainment room and handed me a clipboard with a blank piece of paper attached.

"I want the names of every kid in here, and the ones who left." I could have corrected him, the ones who got away, fled the scene. I had just rolled my eyes and started to redistribute the letters in my friends' names into new positions.

The man couldn't help but laugh at my peers. "Your friends really helped you all out, huh, running away like that?" You are the stupid fucker I had wanted to say; we could have run too, and then you would have none instead of nine. He continued to speak as he sauntered into the kitchen and in a low voice not meant for our ears said, "Stupid little fuckers, they didn't even run into the trees."

He didn't get it, the man with a coffee stain on his cat-puke-brown pressed cotton shirt. He had tried to wipe the stain off with water and a paper towel, because the edges of the stain were thin and wavering, stretching across his chest. Kids like us would never run for that kind of cover. We had learned how to run on playgrounds where mole holes waited to break our ankles. Mine fields that sucked you in instead of blowing you up. One sucked me in when I was ten. I saw the ex-rays of my fractured tibia and won fifty dollars from my Dad because I hadn't just sprained my ankle. Fashioning our joints with a little more rubbery give than they should have had, God gave us the ability to flee into the open.

Made for running through the fields, chunks of frozen dirt and uneven ground to navigate, many of my friends had escaped, their athletic frames pressed into the darkness like copper into tin. They forced it out of their way and had dragged it in behind them as camouflage. Their breath thick with alcohol had created wet clouds of white against the blackened sky, the absence of streetlights allowed the stars to show them a less treacherous path. Running through the emptiness of a soybean field in winter is an experience I believe everyone should have. It can be such a freeing feeling, although cold.

We knew how to hide without cover, in the middle of nothing, a skill that I might have lost over the years. It takes practice, and I haved live too far away from nothing for too long, although I am especially skilled at disappearing in the middle of a room. I don't even need a wall to transform into a flower. There is a tricky way of being felt without being seen, of being heard without being listened to. I practiced this too, though it has had some advantages, I have in more recent years realized the damage it has done.

I used to play a game with my mom. I still play it sometimes, but I don't think anyone notices. A nameless game, it starts with a story, any story that can be slowly embellished so that it eventually fades into something unbelievable, or just fades out. How long do they listen? It varies, but I played the game too much and the ability to hide while speaking out loud has changed my ability to be heard. I play this game everyday, but not with reason or purpose. It slowly dug its nails into my skin and eased its way between skin and muscle, like the needle my orthopedist weaves between the bones of my ankle every six months to drain the fluid that accumulates there. But the game doesn't make moving easier or the natural motion of running more fluid. It exists more as a tumor, eluding growth factors that have taken the puppet master's role in my personality. It doesn't physically exist of course, but its poisonous drugs mix with other self-destructive synapses in my brain.

Titus wanted to write a children's book based on the effects of this game when muddled with my other quirks. His voice had relayed the news over the phone while he was studying art in Aix-en-Provence for the year. At age twenty-one I had been cutting off conversations for over fifteen years. His voice had sounded excited, hoping for mine to mirror its emotion. I faked a smile for the satellite signal. I didn't like my character's name, but Jasper knew a talking raccoon. I couldn't object to that. She told the animal accounts of various horrible things that had happened to her, Titus had made a list. It seemed to Jasper that the raccoon gave her perfect advice to solve her troubles. She could take the parts of her that were writhing, uncomfortable from being pushed away and packed into a painful state. She could replace them with mechanical parts.

Titus didn't know about my report on artificially grown organs, cells layered onto a scaffold and allowed to proliferate until they could be transplanted into the individual that supplied the original living material. He had chosen mechanical parts because machines don't feel, well, they don't have well-oiled tear ducts to show their emotion for them. I didn't think of myself that way. I, unlike Jasper, have always kept my emotions in check the way a neat freak begins to clean a messy room just before company comes. An old sweater lying on the floor is folded and placed in the darkest corner of an empty drawer.

I have a system of layering different textiles, arranged by color and cut in my chest. Though hasty, the strict protocol works, and everything incriminating is out of site by the time any guests arrive, welcome or not. I rearranged myself to fit in the allotted space in the most comfortable confirmation, like the proteins we learned about in organic chemistry. The soybean fields gave me more space than I could hope to fill. I had to agree with Andy about that. I didn't have enough clothing to stuff that emotional closet. It hid things, but it dried them out too, exposing them to the harsh weather. The image reminded me of the weeks we used to uproot and lay in the burning sunlight so they would scorch into submission.

I had seen it done before, the revision of interior design. Courtney Epp had done it when her fiancé died two weeks before the wedding. Troy Childers had worked for a grain elevator, Tamora Co-op, a complex of connected aluminum buildings in Seward County that stored and sold the grain produced by local farms. One of the grain bins filled with soybeans waiting to be sold to the highest bidder. The sellers had held out for the price of produce to climb high enough for them to be more than happy to receive the check.

Troy and one of his co-workers stood inside the metal cylinder, where they scooped up the beans to check the temperature and humidity. They wanted to read the perfect conditions so the thousands of pounds of grain didn't spoil. The beans were a little like sand, but more slippery and treacherous to stand on, which is why Troy's companion had worn a harness strapped to the ceiling of the bin, the beans couldn't suck him in. Unfortunately, the thick crust that forms along the top of such grain piles wasn't quite as thick where Troy had placed his weight. No one the State Patrol interrogated gave them an acceptable reason for Troy's lack of a harness. Unprotected, his spade and instruments in hand as the crust cracked beneath his feet and the beans collapsed over him. I never thought of soybeans as dangerous. I knew they smelled like rotting fish as they decayed, a scent that clung to the edges of the fields where the combines had spit out a bit of the grain. We avoided it even if it meant driving a mile out of the way. I always thought people would eat less tofu if they knew the true scent of soy.

Emergency crews and rescue workers used two doors in the roof of the bin in their attempt to free Troy. They cut a gaping hole in one side, which looked like a tin can with jagged edges. They turned on the conveyer belt, pulled at the grain with large vacuums, and broke a sweat in November with shovels to free him. They told Courtney that Troy had died on impact, that the gas pocket under the crust of soy had burned the oxygen out of his lungs. The idea that he might have struggled through the sea of grain, eventually suffocating, they maintained was a preposterous image. Courtney found that hard to believe when she saw the hole sliced into the side of the guilty bin.

Tamora Co-op was prosecuted for multiple safety violations and Courtney rearranged. She moved out of the apartment she had shared with Troy into one that didn't smell like his cologne. With friends and family close, she took three years to make space in her emotions for someone new. She reorganized the space she had made for Troy once the small space that had closed too tightly around him was destroyed.

In recent years, the fields seemed more ominous. I imagine that while we trudged through the corn, ten feet tall, the leaves reached toward me with their sharp edges to slice at my skin and leave a rash that couldn't be cured by the thickest of medicated lotions. In the damp rows we slipped side-to-side, rubber ankles getting a workout, a stretch. My shoes existed only as piles of heavy mud that would dry and crack in the humid sunlight once I pushed my way out of the field. I kept my eyes in the mud. My head ducked as one forearm lead the way, pushing the thick leaves away from my freckles. They snapped back into place behind me, angry at their failed attempt to cause pain. It was dark in there, stalks so close together that the leaves created a rainforest canopy blocking out the world and creating safe haven for those that loved the damp. I was not one of those. Deep breathes, one more, I sucked in the heavy air slowly like I had treaded water neck deep in a swimming pool for hours. Under water, I held my breath, blowing bubbles that reached the tops of the corn tassels and dispersed into the light.

I didn't buy any sunscreen last summer. I have learned to hate the smell of coconut, so it is for the most part reserved for weekend trips to the beach. Unable to break the habit, I wear long sleeves on the hottest days and miss my mind's ability to disperse over the grid of gravel roads that mark every mile of the Nebraskan countryside in squares. Marijuana still smells like work to me. Grasshoppers remain my least favorite insect, just the thought of the way their feet grabbed hold of human skin in droves makes me squeamish. I obsessively brush my teeth if they feel the least bit grimy.

I can't escape the hold the fields have over me even now. Some of us ran to the empty space for protection, some were unprepared for it, and some let it carry them away. Whatever way you use it, the open space is addictive. The neuroscience laboratory in which I lent a hand in for three years thought of this as an unreasonable assumption, telling me the rats weren't capable of addiction. I maintained that the rats living in small plastic boxes hadn't experienced the necessary kind of freedom to show withdrawal symptoms. They had virginal cells in their innermost hippocampus. On the other hand, I had been overexposed. Even when the only thing living on the land is the Earthworms crawling through it, it catches my interest, pulls me in like the photo of a poorly behaved pet that you loved even though he chewed up your shoes and left hair all over the furniture he didn't sleep on.

The fields though, did not return this obedient affection. They have grown too mature for puppy love. With the infiltration of genetically modified seeds and more effective herbicides and pesticides sprayed from five hundred gallon tanks by the humming crop dusters, much of the human interaction with the plants has become obsolete. Ardell no longer hires kids to carry machetes through the bean fields, the plants themselves strangle the weeds without assistance. The leaves sway, creating the effect of ocean waves, swells of various shades of green are beautiful but the rows are empty. The open space is unwelcoming, shutting us out of its existence and forcing a new kind of introspection. I rearrange myself to get another pair of worn shoes to fit on the rack and the plants grow more tightly together, stronger, making it more and more difficult for the occasional visitor's inexperienced feet to shuffle through. You would need a three-foot long knife just to get ten feet in, nowhere near far enough from the rest of the world to claim sanctuary.

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses

20 December 2007