By Ashley McCurry -
One afternoon in September, my father and I went to the park after school. We lay with our backs pressed into the grass, and he told me fantastical stories of circus animals and dragon-slaying giants and flowers the size of elephants, all performing for us in the sky. He asked me what I saw, and I replied, “I see big and small clouds...some are stringy, and those over there are round and soft.” My father pointed and swirled his finger while describing a mother holding a baby, her hair thin and wispy, her belly soft and plush. I saw only clouds, gradually forging a path across the horizon. He leaned over and kissed my forehead, and we went home. Each Friday, we would return to the park, and he would ask me to see things that weren’t there. I reveled in the ability to stretch every limb as widely as possible in the open air, after hours spent cramped between fiberboard and plastic. Every unwelcome scrape of shoes along the tiles or panicked screech of whiteboard markers clustered painfully within my ears amid high-pitched chatter. I wanted nothing more than to soar on the blue swingset, feeling the rush of quiet wind past my face.
“Son, what does that pile of rocks look like to you? I see a drawbridge guarding a towering castle!” I saw slimy black, moss-covered rocks, partially obscured by shadow in the late summer sun, but no drawbridge. No castle. I could sense my father’s disappointment in his furrowed brow and the slight downward slump of his broad shoulders, although I didn’t understand.
I once saw him talking to my mother in the kitchen, as she put away leftover casserole that I had barely touched. She looked pale under the harsh refrigerator light. I sat on the steps, just out of view, munching softly on cheese crackers to remain discreet. My father’s voice cracked as he contended that I would be unable to compete in a world that values creativity, imagination, and innovation. My teachers had shared their concerns with my parents at that evening’s parent-teacher conference. They called the problem “rigid thinking.” I was seven years old.
For several weeks, my father asked me to see the world differently—the way he did. A full season had come and gone, and on a particularly dreary late afternoon, we passed a dead tree, hollowed out with one sharp, jagged edge cutting diagonally through the rain. I stood very still and marveled at the lifeless trunk. My father asked, “Why don’t we go a little bit further? See that beautiful tree atop the hill?”
“But this tree looks like a unicorn, quietly dreaming in the rain,” I said.
“Yes, it does! I am so proud of you!” he exclaimed, lifting my tiny body into the air, arms outstretched toward the gunmetal sky. He raked his fingers through my hair, and we walked together up the hill. I turned my head back toward the dead trunk, basking in the radiance of conditional pride and praise, a watershed moment in my life’s trajectory, at the precipice of an ever-present battle between authenticity and assimilation.
Ashley McCurry (she/her) is a speech-language pathologist and MFA student at Lindenwood University. She resides in the Southeastern United States with her husband and three rescue dogs. Her work has appeared or is slated for publication in Bright Flash Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Six Sentences, and Potato Soup Journal. She has three creative nonfiction essays forthcoming in The Dillydoun Review.