SmokeLong Quarterly

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Foldable Essay with Wet Bee

Story by L.I. Henley (Read author interview) February 15, 2021

Art by Paul Bilger

My grandmother climbs over the rail of her motorized bed, one naked, frail leg then the other, escaping. Why would I try to stop her? Beneath a sheer pink nightgown is the wound of her chest, atomic and radial. She folds to the floor, knees tucked, head in hands, her wig on the bureau, Vivaldi on the radio, weather warnings, heat and winds. All those years we tried to save the drowning bees with an extended leaf, plastic tumbler, our cupped hands, their wet wings drawn in, mirrored stillness of dying and mending. How we waited poolside to see if they would rise again.


Do you remember when there was a song for every single thing? My grandmother, a kindergarten teacher, believed it was true. Colors, vegetables, days of the week. A song for hellos, a song for goodbyes, for rain, blackbirds and ashes, the clock striking one. Sugar and medicine, the saltcellars of future loss, doled out by tiny metal spoons.


Time folds in on itself, billows and circles back, sky-banners into blue. I’ve never been anyone’s mother, but I sometimes dream I’m at the wheel of a Cadillac coupe, candy-apple red, my passenger a girl-child wearing bobby socks, bag of yellow taffy in her lap. Big band swing in our bones, no seat belts, the fireworks of Desert Willow and Crepe Myrtle popping in hot Texas air, thunderclouds overhead. And the child, like my grandmother, covers her ears when the sky cracks open.


A word for every feeling. “The teacher is my grandmother,” I told the child sitting next to me on the braided rug. We were both amazed that it could be true. A word for every bone in our bodies. What wind can do. Scattered light on small, touchable branches. Sound bites of instruments: guitar, drum, violin. For taste, a lemon wedge, dab of salt. A piece of baker’s chocolate. For touch, a swatch of corduroy. Sandpaper. A pelt of rabbit’s fur. An ice cube in our palms or in our mouths, the last bell ringing us away—


I drive to the assisted living facility every night after work, climb the stairs to her apartment, and still I miss the moment. When her body is taken, I fold into the hot May night with all of my senses. I can hear radios in the lit windows of the living, a song from some distant station: heat advisory, dry lightning, wig in my hand, the spring night smelling of chlorine and humming with bees.

About the Author

L.I. Henley was born and raised in the Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree, California. She is the author of six books including Starshine Road, which won the 2017 Perugia Press Prize, the novella-in-verse, Whole Night Through, and the poetry and art book From the moon, as I fell with artist Zara Kand. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rhino, Waxwing, Tupelo, Diode, Zone 3, Tinderbox, The American Literary Review, Thrush, Ninth Letter and Arts & Letters. Her essay, “Drive!” was chosen by Jason Allen as the winner of the Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 2020.

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This story appeared in Issue Seventy of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy

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