Flashing; Cycles; Growth


One year, you had heard them, sleigh bells on the roof,
and your excitement had made it impossible to sleep.
Later, when the “truth about Santa” began to circulate
on the playground, your faith stayed firm long after
others had denied him. After all, you had heard the bells.
But, eventually, you became embarrassed for how
stupid you had been and for how long you had believed, 
and the memory became bitter. Pathetic, such delusion.
It was a cautionary story, and sometimes you’d tell it 
in a performance of self-mockery turning your naivete
and embarrassment into an amusing party anecdote. 
And then one December, visiting your father in the home, 
the staff had decorated a tree and perched a Santa hat 
on his head. When you snatched it off, he laughed and, 
surprisingly lucid, he began to reminisce about how good 
Christmases had been, how hard they had always tried 
to make them special for the kids. Once, they had even 
borrowed sleigh bells and shook them in the attic.
He didn’t notice you stiffen and pull away. You had to
leave the room, and, when you returned, once again
he no longer knew who you were, but he recognized
what you held in your hand. “I like your hat,” he said. 

The fathers have brought their sons
to talk to the owners about the damage.
At first, they stand slightly to one side, 
listening to the questions and explanations
about what happened or what might
have happened, about responsibility
and compensation. No one wants
to involve police. Then they step forward
to make sure it doesn’t go as badly 
as it could and to navigate a solution,
just as their fathers did years ago.
They’re angry at having to deal with this,
at their sons being young and destructive
and stupid enough to get caught. And now
they understand their own parents better,
those stern adults, who so often seemed mad
at them, who also must have been concerned 
at their increasing inability to protect them,
and who, although damaged and damaging,
were next to them at moments like these.

Smoking stolen cigarettes behind the garage,
talking about cars, jobs, girls, all vaguely
since we knew little about any of them,
occasionally someone would mention someone
they knew who’d had a tumor removed. 
They would list details like size –
big as a grapefruit –weight – five pounds –
or bizarre characteristics like it had hair
and teeth. And always, the person had no idea.
They had gone to the doctor for something else,
because they were tired, feeling “poorly,” 
thought they were pregnant. These stories
were more terrifying than Halloween films
or ScaryWoods. Even young and ignorant
we understood how horror is carried within, 
often unknowingly. Later we would appreciate 
the beauty of the words “benign” and “remission.”
later we would understand why some insisted
on fiercely celebrating each holiday they had.

A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills has published multiple volumes of poetry, most recently “Bodies in Motion: Poems About Dance.” His book “This Miraculous Turning” was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry for its exploration of race and family. In 2019, he published his debut collection of fiction, Bleachers, which consists of fifty-four linked pieces that take place during a youth soccer game.

Information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com.