“The Congress of Wonders” by Mike Lee

That morning, her birthday, Nina went to pull the curtains back and open the window to the backyard.

Her heart throbbed as she crossed the fake wood in the house she just bought, stepping barefoot across the living room. The floor was cold

She had a secret place in her heart where the rain cannot enter: a chamber to place every emotion from happy moments to the tightly wound up heartbreaks locked away for her to sometimes massage.

As she went about her business, from brushing her teeth in the morning to those occasional rough nights clutching her stuffed koala bear, well-loved since babyhood, at night, Nina felt every trace memory deep inside, stashed away in that place.

On most days, now counting into five digits Nina filed something away. Some weighed lightly, others not so.

She does not remember when she began putting these things away. Maybe six or nine years old, perhaps five or three, but whenever it began, something was put away. 

Today was her birthday. Lucky her, she thought. She glanced at the framed poster from a rock show in San Francisco the year she was born.

It was called The Congress of Wonders. At the performance, Kenneth Anger showed films. When Nina was older she loved Puce Moment, wanting many colorful clothes like the actress, and many big dogs to walk down the stairs from her magical bungalow in the Hollywood Hills.

Her parents met there, or so the story goes. She has no photos of them on the walls. They are in two boxes, one on a shelf in the hall closet.

The remaining images rest deep inside that box.

She began to part the curtains, saw the bluebonnets were in bloom. They got lively early. The winter fled early this year. The yard needed work, especially the fence. The weathered planks were coming undone and falling away. Looked bad. Tawdry. Didn’t want the neighbors to talk behind her back any more than they already did.

Nina did not like her neighbors. They were from another time, triggering bad memories of her parents. Violent at worst, passive-aggressive and neglectful at best, Nina felt unburdening relief when first, then the other, died.

They crafted the box in her heart. Parents do that, you see, she would tell therapists over the years, sitting on comfortable couches, or lying down staring at chartreuse ceilings. Going over every slight, at every level of painfulness, always tying to breakthrough, hoping to break open that box deep inside and dump everything out.

Just never quite got there.

She sometimes called herself the saint of the abyss. Her standing at the edge, visualizing suicide but never quite got near the point of actually doing the act, instead occasionally musing on the concept. One psychoanalyst finally convinced her otherwise that it was an act of murder only to hurt others. Nina took it as a reminder that she didn’t want to hurt her parents—only make them admit fault.

At the time she came to that conclusion, it was too late for them to see. They had died long ago. There was no point, so Nina resolved to plow through, while continuing to add near-daily memories to the box.

The dead didn’t give a shit, so neither did she.

She moved to the sliding glass door. The magnolias were blooming early, too.

As she bent to pull the pole that locked the door she felt the box. It felt burdensome more than usual this morning, rustling restlessly. She felt heaviness in her chest, and she caught her breath. This happened sometimes, presaging a panic attack.

She struggled to slide the door, reared forward and coughed. It was one deep heave, and what came out felt like fire.

When came to, she was on the ground, surrounded by bluebonnets. The wind had picked up, and she saw her hammock swinging in the breeze.

She felt light, and immobile. Nina moved her fingers to her face, sliding them down across her cheek. Finally, she moved on her side, caressing the bluebonnets with fingertips. She was taught never to pick them. Too unique, and they don’t last very long in bloom.

A square, hand-carved cedar box was beside her. Small, and very old; Nina recalled it was on a nightstand in the house they lived on St. Elmo. All she could recall from then was the curved stucco entries.

But the box–that she remembered well on her parents nightstand.

Isis winged. Freed.

Later, after placing the box with the photo albums and loose papers, placing them back on the closet shelf, Nina took a shower. She dressed, grabbed her journal and drove to the coffee shop to write.

Her friends planned a karaoke party for her later. She looked forward to it. Put on a puce dress she hadn’t worn in a while for the occasion.


Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and a reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Back Patio Press, Trampset, Lunate, Ghost Parachute and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for Focus on the Story.

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