I believe in five elements I believe the serpents were created from a darkness that wanted something ugly to hide; the quadrapeds from fire that would devour; swimming creatures rose from water that wished to lift something up; flying creatures blew out of a wind wanting to carry. And the two-footed animals were generated from smoke that was itself desire.

Thirty years ago, it hovered briefly between a man and a woman named Glen and Virginia in Oklahoma.

She was twenty, the color of a winter day, dark tree branches for hair and pale sky for skin. Glenn was like a happy, lanky dog, so tan and skinny. He was two years older and about to get a college degree. In the darkness he crouched beside her. She was still a gift, a surprise that woke him too early. They had been married for two months. Behind the headboard, on the other side of the wall, her mother and sister were sleeping. He lifted her body to his and her black hair left the pillow. Her eyes opened and in a puff everything changed.

But they didn't notice.

They were busy imagining their future. In just two months they were leaving to live on an air force base near Tokyo. Virginia had already given notice at her job taking shorthand and spent the evenings separating things into two piles: "Take" and "Leave." Once she looked up from her sorting to see Glenn pull up in a red 1959 Chevy convertible with flaring nostrils and batwings even though everyone had said, "Don't bring an American car to Japan -- they're too big for the streets and you can get a Jap one for less." He smiled and pushed back his dark hair when she called him a son-of-a-bitch for going and wasting their money. A rotten, filthy, Okie son-of-a-bitch. So he drove away in that big boat of a car to show it off to someone who'd look.

Before they left, she found out she had a surprise for him, too. Her jittery stomach turned out to be a baby. So they started off even, each of them with a special belonging to comfort them in a strange country.

It took one day to travel from the golden flatness of Oklahoma to the startling hills of San Francisco, another to get to Hawaii with its orchids hanging everywhere, a third day to reach the military outpost of Wake Island, and a fourth to arrive in Japan, where mountains emerged ancient and green. It took the red car even longer, but eventually it arrived. They unpacked in a cinder block house like all the others. While Glenn was at the office, Virginia learned how to arrange flowers in the askew, unsettling way of that country. For the first three months, according to the letters she wrote home to her mother, it rained.

Finally summer came. An earthquake shook the dishes and a typhoon rattled the windows. All of this was usual for the people who lived there. Even Virginia had gotten used to it. Which is to say that the day I was born, even though the weather was bad, the earth restless inside and out -- it had nothing to do with me.

After a night of struggle, I emerged, whole and alert at dawn. The first breath was the hardest; it whipped through my body like the wind through a kite. They lifted me up and away and washed my face and body. My legs were unfolded and my hands unclasped. They rolled sticky ink on the soles of my feet and held them to a crisp square of paper. When they were finished, they wrapped me in soft cotton and left me alone, caught for the first time in my own warmth. The inside of my ears tickled and my eyes watered with the desire to know. When my father arrived, they argued about my name. They finally called me Lucinda because it was complex and conveyed their inability to agree on anything.

And, I think, it reminded my mother of Cinderella.

All of us came from smoke and desire.

Once, men lived on the fringes of the mountain towns in the Pyrenees. It was six hundred years ago. Or more. They believed the source of everything that had ever been or would be was in just five things. Darkness, fire, water, air, and smoke. They taught that souls traveled from creature to creature, living in the quivering heart of a squirrel, then in the shape of a man working the land, or a lamb grazing. They were vegetarians, of course. They lived as brothers. Once, they told a woman whose husband died of fever that his last breath leapt into her womb. She wept with joy.

Eventually, the Inquisition snuffed them out.

If I had lived in the mountains with my family, just a girl, and understood only the ways of my people and of sheep and if someone strange came into town and spoke of something beautiful -- I would believe him. I would be desperate to believe him.

My uncle was such a man, a heretic. Someone who chooses what he believes. Now, he is a flapping sailfish living in the sea. Each morning, he surfaces with letters arranged in order on his back. The words link like sea horses hooking tails. This is his offering. I pull them up and carry them home and arrange them on the table each day after breakfast.

All of these words come from water, which wishes to lift me up. n

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More by Robin Bradford
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Splendored Thing: Love, Roses & Other Thorny Treasures
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