I was a very certain child. It burdened my parents, that self-possession. It was hard to tell me I was wrong. I knew what I knew, and wasn't yet troubled by that growing realization of just how much I didn't know. I stood bolstered by my font of amassed knowledge, rather than cowed by the expanse of my ignorance. One of these positions is the tiniest bit closer to wisdom.
I heard a story about a bobcat that frequented backyard lawns in the Southwest. Bounding over garden walls, it slept on beds of curated grasses under the sweet-tree smells of juniper and lemon. On the patio it washed itself, rough tongue combing thick pelt. It paused only when someone came too near, at once indifferent and threatening. Koi fish were its easy prey. Artifice of the natural, like raspberries in January. It's an easy place for the bobcat, a known place, a made place. It is safe because it has walls, but then, it has walls. The bobcat can be comfortable with the idea that this sanctuary, this cage, can be entered and left at will. But if the bobcat grows lazy or injured or old, which would it mourn: the inability to re-enter or the inability to leave?
Around the same time I heard this story a picture was circling the Internet of another bobcat in Florida that wrestled a shark from the sea for its dinner. It takes something special to become like that, to prowl the slope of the unending shore and swipe out with curved claw, to hook yourself a fish that fights back.
At the end of elementary school my adult incisors began to grow in before I lost my baby ones. In classic tooth replacement progression, the adult teeth move steadily down through the gums until they nudge out the baby teeth. My "dagger teeth" as I called them, weren't playing by the rules. Instead they started to poke their little white points out through the front of my gums high above the canines they were supposed to be ousting. I was developing a double set of incisors: shark-smiled. I quickly learned to stop my lips at the crest of my second set. The dentist said he would have to pull my baby teeth to make room for the adult teeth to move down. My reaction as an 11 year old hearing the news: horror. I had seen enough cartoons of dentists and sketches of teeth-pulling scenarios to know that this was a fate to be avoided: AT ALL COSTS.
I took a few days to gather my courage. Then one evening in the shower after I had finished washing, I knelt down near the drain. You can imagine the rest: fingernails scraping for purchase on smooth gums, blood stark against the white floor of the tub, mouth awash with the tang of iron, two stubborn baby teeth in the hands of an even more stubborn child.
As a child I had it all figured out. I knew the steps I needed to take to get the kind of life I wanted. I was confident in my own abilities, not yet fogged by comparison and doubt. I had decided: I would write books, teach for a while, get married, and have children. My path lay broad and clear before me, as evident as Dorothy's yellow brick road. All I had to do was follow.
But of course, with each year that passed, the clarity of that path shrunk and several other paths sprang up around it. The future grew dense around me like a bamboo forest and the way, so clear before, flickered wire-thin. I've kept my fingers clenched tight around it. The line embeds bone-deep. It seems the horizon has multiplied along new impossible axes that defy logic. Even progress no longer seems linear. I am rarely certain any more. I am never sure.
Yet I am pulled ever onward by the distant calls of that stubborn foot-stamping little girl, who could wrest teeth from her own mouth. She knows what she wants, even when I can no longer remember. She prowls the shore, waiting, waiting.
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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
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Claire Kortyna's nonfiction has been published in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine and her essay "Lunar Musings" won the Home Voices Contest held by Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. In addition to being a creative writer, she is an English teacher at Iowa State University.
This excerpted piece is from a longer work that explores the doubts, insecurities, and moral dilemmas that arrive hand-in-hand with growing up.
This page was first displayed
on November 25, 2016