‘Fragile Giants’ by Laura Madeline Wiseman

“It’s Penny, right?”

“Yep. That’s me. Quarters, nickels, dimes, and Penny. When you get old, you need sayings to remind you,” says the woman, a blonde in teeny glasses  holding a camera, the strap looped around its body. Behind her on the walls, banners of spiritual words shift. A pastor makes rounds. Spread over tables, white tablecloths sway with the motion of those sitting down with full plates. We’re inside a church in a town named after a corn deity on a street called Mulberry. Today, I bike the Loess Hills on an organized ride that after expenses are paid, donates proceeds to a local food pantry. Here, giants rise from the earth, surrounded by farmland where apples grow on open trees, lavender scents the fields, and corn reaches towards the sky. This church is almost like a cave of food, an island oasis on windswept roads, something solid among crops that roll with waves. Eating from real tableware, cyclists talk. We cup mugs. We lean back, hands behind our head, legs outstretched wide. We laugh. We eat. We storytell. Some of us eat a first lunch, others a second. Many simply graze.

The pastor approaches our table and places one hand on a chair back. “Penny, I thought you were going home to take a nap?”

“I am,” she says, nodding, holding her camera close. “I’m going soon.”

As they talk, I return my attention to my plate—fresh fruit and vegetables, roasted meat. A group of cyclists enter and queue up for the buffet. A serving window holds slow cookers on warm—Italian chicken, hamburgers, baked beans, cheesy potatoes. One table has fruit, another bakery sweets. A third extents with sandwich toppings, a fourth drinks. I’ve selected something from every table, including the final. On it, the one I visited when I arrived, offers glass bowls and serving spoons for DIY trail-mix, complete with mini sacks pre-labeled, This trail-mix belongs to_________. I couldn’t help it. I wrote my name in the blank, filling one, then two sacks with banana chips.

I slide a banana chip from the sack, thinking about the giants I’ve just climbed, the ones ahead. I’ve never biked such formations made of what once blew in on the wind. I’ve never found the road to this valley’s overlook, stood there straddling my bicycle, open-mouthed at prairie landscape and colors of fall. I’ve never thought of giants made of stuff as fine as sugar, as earth, rather than imaginary creature of lore, one-eyed and deadly. If a hill is a fragile giant, than what am I? I turn over the thought as I eat from the the lunch SAG, a spread of food greater than the standard powerbars, pretzels, and sports drink. Here, the food is real.

The woman turns to me again. “Tell me your name,” she says. I look at her, a banana chip on my tongue, hesitating.


Now a sinus headache spears my brow, tension spreading down my back. I swallow something for allergy pain, pressing my head into my hands. I wait for the windows’ darkness to blue, for permission to find the road again. When it does, I gather my gear and drive to a mall to start another ride, this one organized to raise funds for the town’s local bike trails. I search the registration tables, hoping for yesterday’s Loess Hills pre-feast, like the DIY mix of pineapple chunks, dried cherries, mango slices, and banana chips. Some of us carry yellow totes with ride tee-shirts, flyers, and swag. Some hold water bottles. No one holds food. If it’s here, nobody gets it now. I rub my temples and turn to the glass doors to push into the Great Plains.

Yesterday, I pedaled an area where Lewis and Clark once passed—land of exploration. Today, I pedal where some of the first homesteads were claimed—land of displacing one people to place another people there. There’s something about those two categories—traveling or making a home, native food of the road or my imagined drudgery of pioneer cooking—that unsettles me. I don’t want to stop. I want to go. It doesn’t even matter where. I want the journey, not the destination, the road not the arrival. I want to get there by bicycle. I lift my bicycle from the hitch and check the tire pressure and brakes. I zip my jacket. I rub a circle in the center of my brow, lift and drop my shoulders—there’s no cure for allergies, only endurance. I swing my leg over my bicycle and push off. Once on another ride, a cyclist with silver braids told a friend, “Work it out on your bike.” Or maybe she said, “Let the bike work it out of you,” as she pressed off in a white jacket made to turn away the heat. As I roll through the parking lot, I think my bike could be that wise, saying, “Let me work on you.” My bike doesn’t talk, even if her name is, Lexa, meaning defender.

We ride sidewalks—broken, chipped, beaten by winter and time. Some of us take a bike trail through town. Some of us ride streets to the highway. We bike to where the world is only corn, two-toned and yellow. Inside the city, I forget we are creatures that eat, unless I’m out of food, down to only raisins, a couple of onions, one bag of frostbitten green beans, and then I’m forced to shop. Outside the city on my bicycle, I remember we’ve planned civilizations around the growing of crops, tending of animals, and transportation of what nourishes us to towns, homes, and SAGs, those tables set along highways, in parks, or inside churches where food and drink waits for cyclist reaching hands. From here, at any moment, I can pull my bicycle off the road, lay her in the grass, and follow a tractor entrance to such a field. I can press into the rasping rows, let their dryness brush against my face, and inhale the fall scent of earth and first dying, the odor of what’s nearly ready to be lifted into the air and transformed into piles of gold.

Alongside our line of bicycles, a herd of black and white cattle charge. Their hooves strike louder than the whirl of our tires. In the rhythm of pedaling and breath, I ask the bike to sooth me, to work me, to work it out, whatever it is—hunger, fatigue, headache, this urgency to wander. The dried leaves clatter in the wind. In the distance, windbreaks of trees bend. Windmills whirl, metal turning fast enough to make the blades disappear.

I pedal each mile of the side wind hard to reach the first SAG where I stop to refuel. I reach for a banana chunk, the cut slick and browning. I peel it and nibble—though I want to push the whole thing in my mouth, mush it and swallow it whole. Others eat slowly. Some stand. Some cross their arms. The SAG’s contents are thinly spread on the table—fruit chunks on a paper plate, coolers of water, lone pretzels inside a plastic tub. If yesterday was the cave of plenty, today is a ship where only rats lurk and there’s not a drop to drink. I peel another banana chunk and keep my gaze down, wondering if I can nab the plate of fruit and run into the field. Ahead are route options—50, 70, 100. Behind us somewhere, was the turn for 25. I peel a third banana chunk, my sensed quota. I want to apologize, for what I’m not sure—my appetite, allergies, or existence, as if I ask for more than I ought. I squint into the brightness and fill my bottle with water. If there’s sports mix, I can’t see it. Or maybe my headache prevents me from seeing, as if pain can narrow the vision of the world, reduce it and highlight only lack—no food, no electrolytes, no bananas chips. Once, at a SAG, the SAG volunteer doled out each scope of sports mix as we queued up. At another SAG, trail-mix was portioned in small paper cups. When my friend tipped the cup to show me the contents, inside were only two raisins, a pretzel, and half a peanut. Sometimes we can only see scarcity.

Now, beside this grim table, we’re hyper-bright in our fluorescent kit and extra-large. There are so many of us standing on the side of the road, at a place where groups rarely gather, we seem monstrous—gigantic in helmets of many hues and in sunglasses oversized and mirrored, like big, threatening eyes. In full cycling gear, I stand six foot. I glance at another near me, taller than I and insect-like in clothing that clings to the body, all ropey muscles and joints. Someone says, “Ready for headwind?”

For fifteen miles and nearly two hours, the wind beats me and beats me. It cracks my lips. It windburns my face. It’s mean. If I think at all, I’m only ugly thoughts. I am the thing I’m doing rather than the thing I am. I’m turn the wheel. I’m climb the hill. I’m grip the handlebars as vehicles pass. I tell myself, After this hill, I’ll see a water tower, or, The line of trees ahead is my turn, or Around this curve is the second SAG. They are petitions, calls to gods and giants. They keep me from hurtling something into the wind. It’s myself I imagine throwing. Not my bike. Lexa is good.

Though the route map locates a SAG before the next town, there isn’t a SAG. In town, people mingle in the park shelter among bright red coolers, but they’re not cyclists. We pause, elbows on handlebars, half-stooped. Habituated to speaking over wind, we yell. Someone says, “This isn’t the SAG.” Another says, “Did we miss it?” A third, “Maybe it’s after town. My map’s wrong.” We consult maps, phones, each other. When it’s clear our SAG isn’t here, we bike searching for a table of fruit in a desert of corn under a wind scraped sky. I need an oasis, a cave of food, a prayer. I ride, sure my body is cannibalizing my muscles for fuel. The headwind beats on me and beats on me. Whenever I cease pedaling, my bike wobbles, threatening to roll backwards, caught by gusts that could hurtle me back to where I’ve finally managed to leave. Friends pedal this ride, but I keep to silence, pretending my mouth is shut by stone. When the stone rolls away, I curse, and push it back.

Finally, a SAG materializes. I stop and search the table. “Do you have any bananas?”

The volunteer shakes her head. “At the next SAG, I think?”

Among the options—granola bars, fruit snacks, bottles of water, paper towels—I touch an apple, then remember I can’t bite something so large. My lips are cracked, torn, windburned, the corners breaking open and splitting into wounds. Between the cracks, the skin is taut, shiny, like plastic. “Next SAG?” I ask, opening my mouth a third of the way to speak. The cracks stretch, threatening to tear.

Another asks, route map in hand, “Where’s the next SAG?”

Having already touched the apple, I slide it into my jersey pocket, wondering who to give it to and where to find bananas. I push my bike back to the road. I ride the side wind to the next town and there, collapse with friends in a park shelter.

“Here,” I say between broken lips, “eat,” handing over the apple.

“Here,” my friend says, pressing a bottle of electrolytes into my hand, “drink.” I eat and drink everything offered. I listen to birds. I inhale the pre-harvest air. I watch butterflies turning above the clover and us pedaling far off on the road. I absorb everything and then nap, or rather, something grabs me, pulls me down into the depths from which I rise changed.

 

But, that’s tomorrow and it’s still today. I’ve just arrived, my jersey pocket holds two mini-bags of banana chips—This trail-mix belongs to______, and I climb the Loess Hills. A few miles skirt its edge and a valley of golden hues. I bike inside a fog backlit by light. The sun breaks, disappears, a shifting that keeps me guessing on layers to strip. Push down leg warmers? Remove second gloves? Tuck earflaps to quiet the wind? The fog lifts. I pedal, following the creek and scenic byway. I don’t stop until I reach the Loess Hills visitor center and registry. I sign it as nobody real, a made-up name, one I write in every guestbook, as if I’m writing someone into existence and she’s somewhere ahead, protected by giants.

I set the pen down and follow our sounds into the visitor center. One room hosts a SAG with a table piled with bananas. A toddler babbles. We chat. The SAG volunteer stacks more bananas. I eat one banana. Then as I peel another, wandering through the museum to learn. A terrain map marks our loop with yellow arrows. A display of plastic tubes explains differences between sand and loess. I look for information on the last controlled burn, the way the land is managed by fire. I look for the ice age animals who once roamed here—wooly mammoth, giant beaver, giant sloth. Each wall has something—paintings, photographs, taxidermy, diorama. One features a crosscut of earth—loess, roots, rock, burrow, a North American Badger. On another ride, such a black and white creature had nosed from the shoulder as I approached. “Do you see it?” I’d called to a friend.

“See what?” My friend slowed.

“That made-up animal.”

My friend glanced towards the fields. “Made up? What was it?”

“A reverse skunk?” I’d said, looking back. “A fat ferret?”

“A ferret in the Great Plains?”

“A paint splattered rat? Marmot? Groundhog? Possum?” I didn’t say the word badger. I knew the word, but not the face and had kept her among the fabulous—giants, nymphs, magnificent blends of god and human—moving somewhere unseen on a ridge of an ancient dune capped by topsoil and grass.

Finishing the banana, I move to a sign and speak the word of where I am now, “Loess Hills,” following the lesson and symbols of speech. I try again, “Loess Hills.” It notes Loess isn’t pronounced like a woman’s name, Lois, and the double ss aren’t plural—a hissing sound. It’s said like the first part of the word lustrous without the hard t, luss. Though moments later after I’ve left the center, I stand for a moment at a scenic overlook and speak with another who says, Lois, not Luss. He says, “I’ve spent my whole life here.”

From the hill, I take it fast, throwing my brakes half-way down to catch my breath. Ahead the road turns and after that, the possibility of anything—unseen vehicles, gaints to climb, fabulous creatures at the edge. I exhale, heart wild and I know suddenly that my bicycle is where I live. It’s a moving home of sorts, where I can feel the hum of the road beneath me. It sends a vibration into my arms, like a song, its underbelly, soft and warm.

Then, we’re back at the SAG, filling sacks of DIY trail-mix, eating first or second lunch, or maybe first or second breakfast. We’re talking hills, rides, and training. Then we’re riding again and miss a turn. We stop on a shoulder to look around. “Are we lost?” someone asks. “I didn’t see any arrows,” someone says. Directions are unfolded, phones studied, maps turned. We backtrack and find the route. At a stop sign at the Loess Hill Trail, someone asks me, “Are you doing the 29 mile loop or the 26?”

The 26 mile route is flat, passing by lavender fields with the promise of lavender cookies and lemonade. The 29 mile route climbs a massive stair-stepping, five mile giant to a town with two long coasts on the other side that leads back to the feast. “I haven’t decided.”

“Well, you have seven tenths of a mile to decide.”

When a car passes, we take the road. I decide then to let such creatures work my body, to let my bicycle work on me, to find the nobody I’m biking towards, the one I keep writing in books, even if I feel I make her up as I go. I look at us, the road ahead, and the colossal rise of the land. It doesn’t look fragile to me. It looks strong, like it wants to be ridden by those who call out wildly, hearing the hum, that ancient vibrating song.

We ride and then we return to the SAG to feast. I look at Penny as she sits across from me at the table. The lenses of her glasses glimmer with light. The question remains between us. “Tell me your name.”

I tap a banana chip and then slide my finger from the sack and point to my name on the blank, saying, “Madeline.”

“If we meet again and I act like I don’t know you, tell me your name and give me a minute.” She squints at me. “Madeline?” she repeats, tilting her head, “I prayed for you,” and explains that the organizers gave her my name on a card and she added me to her prayers.

“You did? Why?”

“To have a safe ride,” she says, not a curse from a god, but a blessing. I thank her, stand, and looking for another plate to fill with melon slices, joining the other giants in the room, all of us moving in our dance of cleats, little steps on heels, toes lifted in the air, under towering forms.  


laura madeline wisemanLaura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press). Her recent books are Drink (BlazeVOX Books), Wake (Aldrich Press), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink), and the collaborative book The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters (Les Femmes Folles) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, The Iowa Review, Calyx, Ploughshares, and Feminist Studies. Currently, she teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

feature image via Oregon State.

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