First Breath After

quince

Wild quince is blooming out among the river brambles and tiny bleeding hearts tremble beneath the ferns along the animal paths.

New moon yesterday when the lights join again to trace the waxing wheel from dark seed to bright mirror and back to darkness. Mercy and I walked out to the old boat landing. She swam after sticks and dug in the sand. I pulled rusty bits of shopping cart out of the river and up onto the stones, too heavy to pack with us when we leave. The rough-built cross marking the place of ashes still stands after the winter floods.

february_willamette

Vic still lives across the road, though he can no longer drive and can barely hear. When Shirley died in July, he refused to move no matter how the family implored and reasoned. A friend takes him out for exercise and errands several times a week. He orders groceries online, tins of sardines and rice pudding. I labeled his house key and put it in the little wooden bowl on the table with the other odd bits.

Sometimes I glimpse Shirley, out in her robe and slippers, watering the planters or checking the mailbox. We would stand in her driveway and talk and laugh. Mercy, bored with it all, would lie down and wait in the shade.

Somehow she melted, like the moon, like the snow.

A year ago there was a snow storm in the valley that dropped almost two feet over two nights. When I opened the blinds the first morning, the dogwood tree was bent to the window glass. I went out with a broom and rocked the branches to dump the powder, much of it down my arms and neck, but the bent dogwood did not break. It bloomed in May.

mercy_snowplay

Repost of Born for This the first breath after:

Vic is shoveling snow off his driveway with a flat half-spade. There are soft trailing footprints where Mercy and I climbed the slope to deliver white bean and chicken soup and take away a bag of trash to the street. We put the bins out for collection Sunday night as snow started to fall and stick. I knocked a foot of snow off the bins with the snow shovel, twice. The snow on the hill is up to Mercy’s belly and my knees. I’m keeping an eye on Vic through the front windows as I write. Vic is 89. He doesn’t want any help.

Vic’s red plaid Pendleton is tucked into khakis hitched up to his lower ribs. When the sun came out after the latest flurries, he leaned against the garage and unzipped his coat. He slices at the top of the snow with the spade and lets it slip off to the growing pile on the side. Looking south to the Butte, he stops and rests, bowed with both gloved hands on the handle of the shovel. Twice I nearly pulled my boots back on to go out to help and then stopped. He refused my help twice already.

Monday morning there was a foot of snow. Mercy was out back barking before daylight, baying at snow drifts. My phone starting pinging with incoming text messages. The power went out at ten o’clock, yet I had enough presence of mind to brew extra coffee and fill every thermos from the top cupboard with hot water before it went. We lit a fire and set up the camp stove under a sheltered eave. I pulled on my gear and took the dog out back to dig the gate free while she capered and plowed through the powder.

Small trees, herbs and shrubs, my beloved curling hazel, all snapped and broke under the weight of the first fall. Fallen cedar limbs yawn like leviathan bones jutting from the snow. A 30-foot scotch pine toppled in the back and took out a section of fence. Fir trees cracked in the middle distance. An electrical transformer flashed and exploded farther away. Another ten inches of snow fell. Shy yearlings lurk down the hill behind tree trunks watching the dog tunnel in the snow. Deer mice crept in during the night to scoop frozen drippings from a corner of the grill pan.

Mercy danced.

The main roads are plowed now. The power is back. The sun was out briefly before it freezes tonight. Our hillside spur road needs to melt more to drive down; even in the Outback there is not enough clearance to negotiate the grade. Shirley was referred to an oncologist and has her first appointment tomorrow morning. She thought she’d try to walk down the hill to meet her son where the roads are cleared. I shook my head and suggested alternatives. Shirley is 81.

The patient advocate at the cancer clinic is sending transportation for the appointment, a chained high-profile vehicle with a chance of climbing.

Shirley doesn’t think Vic will be able to travel with her, although he desperately wants to go.

Quarantine

pink_azalea_marker

Forty days and nights sequestered.

Ships wait at anchor, just as once they stood offshore from Venice during the Black Death, the Plague, the Pestilence. Venetians waiting for the crew to finally die and the diseased ship be burnt to the waterline, or live and revel in release by the Doge, trade their cargo of spices and silk, laugh at night in the wine house and raise the full ruby goblet while sharing wondrous tales from the East.

Forty days and nights in the wilderness tempted.

Make bread out of stones, to feed unbelievers with miracle; jump from a pinnacle and fall into mystery in the arms of angels; worship the Prince of this World in return for authority over all kingdoms, the Grand Inquisitor contends. This is all humanity desires: miracle, mystery, and authority, not the scourge and starvation of freedom. The prisoner remains silent, yet is set free with a kiss.

Forty days and nights in the Bardo.

Forty days of Lent.

A full moon falls on the 40th day this year.

heron_treecharcoal

Lexicon

It’s said the Inuit people know 50 names for snow. Living half the year in long darkness, half in forever midsummer sun, the names came from patient study and deliberation, conferring with elders and ancestors, and finally from standing alone on the frozen tundra to shout a name to the wind to learn which snow must answer.

Not Siletz or Siuslaw, neither Coos nor Kalapuya, I was merely born on the delta between two wild sisters, two swift rivers in the time of mighty Chinook running, born here where rain falls a lullaby on the eaves, listening to cloud, lashing the cedars. Perhaps, the wind says, it is time. Are we the last great rain shadow remaining?  It is daunting. I am unqualified. Nevertheless now, as a grown woman with time running short, I begin the work of setting down this imperfect translation.

The scholar will note that this lexicon is forever inaccurate and incomplete, as most linguistic equivalences between poetry and mathematics are impossible. However, I present this imperfect compilation as a primer, a basic catalog, meant merely as an outline of myriad nuance. For just as snow evolves to find novel forms, rain invents itself anew each generation; each manifestation awaits a hearing, an integration, awaits its true name spoken to the wind.

The Names of Rain, in Mostly Alphabetic Order

Ashrel – dervish rain lifts fishes from the ocean

Bentah – walks on mountain sleeping late

Cihtel – brings Camas to bloom and softens earth to dig roots

Drem – tamps cooking smoke from leaving lodge

Enili – paints rainbows

Fege – sends geese to ground to wait for sky

Gryth – cools the face at corn time

Haili – dogs hide under the bed and howl

Inii – mixes with tears of mourning

Joos – plays pipes across the long pond

Klakatesh – washes the berries before picking time

Laqu’me – children run and laugh gathering firewood

Muus – mothers nurse newborns in the doorway

Nehali – toppling ancestor tree from root

O’roko – Chinook climb currents home to spawn

Papuq – lovers watch the moon

Quzshet – rides with thunder

Rokama – pisses on the slippers left outside

Snalak – wakes the crows to fend off the hawk

Tek – trout rising for mayfly

Umoq – making peace and taking pride at potlatch

Vru’ku – sleeping with spirits

Wewemi – closes the dance beside the fire

Xalj – after the fever breaks

Yopuna – grandmothers crack acorns and talk story

Za’aln – hearing the heartbeat of the land and weeping

******

Please note this is a work of imagination and the lexicon is a figment of my own mythology~

 

 

Moon Lamp

moonlamp

One hundred years ago my grandmother was a child when the Spanish Flu finally reached Nez Perce, Idaho.

The Great War ended. Uncle Non returned with a limp and a spray of shrapnel lodged in his back, shards sometimes found in the bottom of the wash tub, spit out by the wringer. Grandma called him Non, although his given name was Tom–she gave pet names to anyone she loved.

Grandma gave me Non’s moon lamp, the Art Nouveau style I admired, still fitted with the original frayed cord that sends moonlight rippling over the water when lit. Heat from the bulb turns the cylinder balanced over it to project behind painted glass. The iron base is sculpted with a gondolier and his passengers, The Lovers. It’s ingenious.

The family was as poor as all the other families in Lewis County, farm scratching in the panhandle, mending and re-mending brace and harness, hoping for rain but not too much. They lived in a small wooden house at the edge of town, a young father and mother with three children not yet of school age before the influenza epidemic arrived, a pale horse, pale rider.

The family was struck, along with many others, with the fever. Cows went unmilked, horses were set out to forage along the dirt roads of the town before a farmer became too weak to tend them. Alone in the silent mottled shafts of sunlight falling through cracks in the siding, my grandmother, Angela, did not succumb. She drug a chair to stand on from the kitchen table over to the crank telephone on the wall to call for help. Her own mother lie upstairs dying.

——

“How do you know this?”

She asks me twice after I read my response to the exercise to the group, then further: “How could you know this?”

I am in a workshop exploring the intersections of poetry and essay, the lyric weighting of nonfiction narrative. I’m taken off-guard by the unexpected question as response.

“My grandmother told me,” I shrug, as if it must be obvious. Yet, apparently, she doesn’t believe me.

“How is that possible?”

I didn’t understand the question. I spent my childhood in my grandmother’s company. I assumed other grandmothers told stories, shared memories, showed one how to take a cutting from a rose to grow a new plant. I shrug again and repeat my answer.

My grandmother is the only person who ever really slapped me, if I discount the offended young Spaniard in Salamanca whose blow I dodged. Grandma was trying to work a brush through thick tangles in my hair before we drove to town, hair just like her own, and I resisted each tug. I earned it.

Advent

archangel_michelis

Black Friday I lit the fire early hoping to relieve the laboring heat pump banging and shedding ice. Brew chai and plug it with honey, survey the frost and fog.

Two weeks until Solstice; the Sun hangs three days before turning.

Black Friday open an inbox of advertisements, act-now deals, coupon codes, and come-ons that just keep coming. Even the organization administering Mercy’s microchip data sends emails pitching personalized collars and dog beds. Two years ago I ordered a light from Home Depot and can’t get the unsubscribe option to stick. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday. The newspaper itself is a slim fraction of the inserts stuffed inside. An offer for 10% off pet insurance just arrived. Monetize is the mantra.

Night falls during a dense afternoon and a crow pecks at the last withered apple.

I like to shop at the local hardware store. The handsome clerk downstairs with long gray hair and frost blue eyes is patient prompting me through the payment options on the card reader and the music piped through the store is classic rock not Christmas carols. I buy strands of multi-colored lights and string them around the house, toy with timers, light them up when I come upstairs in the morning and leave them on all day.

There are Christmas tree farms nearby. Trees are carefully trimmed each year, cultivated to achieve the classical cylinder shape expected by consumers, and then cut and sent to lots in the cities. There are free permits to cut a spruce, fir, or pine in the national forest, wild trees all akimbo and chaotic. When I was growing up and my family went upriver to cut a wild tree, I was skeptical when I saw the jagged limbs; yet, hung with lights and glass and shine, an ungainly tree transforms just as magically.

When I lived in southwest Oklahoma, I adopted a black Labrador named McKenzie, a cunning dog from a Cajun duck hunter’s litter. I named him for my homesick river and assured him there was wild clear water in the world. There was nothing evergreen out on the Plains, nothing except great globes of mistletoe strung in the oaks. When we went to the Christmas tree lot and looked over the selection of trees available, I refused to buy one. They were dry and brown, just like the landscape, needles already shedding. I bartered to take their freshest cuttings for a few dollars.

McKenzie and I walked out along Medicine Creek, where the tallest trees grew, with a frisbee in hand. I hurled the disc up hard into the oaks and knocked off bunches of mistletoe. McKenzie retrieved the frisbee. I threw it again. We worked together until we gathered armfuls of green and then we went home. I wove the mistletoe and bartered pine cuttings into an interlacing structure and decorated it with lights and ornaments.

Every year since, with any evergreens at hand, I weave an alter of rosemary, holly, fir, and pine. Strike fire in a time of stone. There is the magic.

solstice_table

Aldebaran

aldebaran
Minotaur

The first time I landed, I crossed by water. We sailed at night out from the boot of Italy, running east in rain and wind, across the Ionian Sea. Our ferry tickets were deck-class and what scarce shelter the deck afforded was claimed. I pitched my free-standing tent. We wrestled our backpacks inside to weight the tent against the ship. All night the nylon flustered and bucked against the wind. My sister and I tossed in the dark on the groaning deck fearing we would kite overboard in the gale.  A clear dawn broke through the cypress trees of Corfu. I slept finally, dreaming the throbbing ship engines were the heartbeat of a great beast beneath me, cradling me over the waves.

There are not enough words for purple. Most are artifice. Along that inside passage, the purples of sea and land waxed dark at noon entering the Bay of Patras. Great stone breasts of islands lit by the rising sun on the water to port, shapes shaded aubergine and heliotrope diminishing to violet. The diesel exhaust of the ferry smokestacks swept aft with the wind, yet the lingering blow back was rich as earth–earth and the wine-dark sea. Is there power in naming a true name?

Andrew, a fisherman, the Apostle First-Called, was martyred in Patras. The Saint’s Orthodox Cathedral is the largest in Greece. With its high dome ornamented with gilded icons and frescoes, its filigreed windows, it houses precious holy relics. These relics include Andrew’s little finger.

The marble step before the relic shrine is worn by years of pilgrims kneeling to venerate the saint’s finger. We descended into the darkness of the original stone church and filled our water bottles from the holy spring, called Andrew’s, though once it belonged to Demeter. We left the church, the cloud of incense, and climbed the hills covered in new chamomile and wild thyme to lounge among the stones of the Castro.

*****

Europa was a Phoenician princess. She was enchanted by a great white bull, a gentle beast crowned with wreaths of flowers and wild herbs. The bull bent a knee to the princess and she climbed on his back, the lustrous white hide glistening as only a god shines. With the beautiful maiden on his back, the bull charged down to the sea and dove into the waves.

The bull swam away from Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, to the island of Crete. The bull-god Zeus ravished the Phoenician princess and she gave birth to King Minos and his sea empire in Crete. The Greek word phoínio, from whence Phoenician derives, means purple. Tyrians extracted the royal purple dye from local species of sea snails and traded the precious pigment throughout the Mediterranean. That the lovely princess Europa gave her name to the continent is curious: Crete is closer to North Africa than Athens. There are often puzzles in the naming of things, as well as artifice.

*****

As a younger son of the family, with no land to inherit and work, my grandfather walked to Athens and took fourth-class passage for America where gold lay in the streets waiting to be plucked–or shiny foil cigar bands mistaken for gold. He passed through Ellis Island in the early century, a short sinewy man in a jostling crowd of immigrants, all with the very same dreams of gold.

Like other immigrants with difficult names, his own was anglicized by the weary clerk at the processing counter. My grandfather’s given name was reinvented as Augers. An “auger” is a tool for drilling holes, or more arcanely a portent of fate and fortune. Here, perhaps, a new puzzle and artifice concealed in the rechristening.

Once in the city, he darted through the dirty streets gathering gold-foiled cigar bands. He worked. He traveled west. He married. He shot his thieving business partner and hid his family in a cave in the desert. Late one night, the family boarded a train traveling further west and north. “Our family is named for the winter star,” he told my mother, holding her up to the window to point out the bright red star in the head of the Bull, a shared breath fogging the glass as they gaze out into the darkness. They came as far west as there was country to cross to the shores of the Pacific.

*****

Zeus set the great white bull into the winter night sky as the constellation Taurus. The blazing red eye of the bull, high in the flying wedge of stars between Orion and the Pleiades, is named Aldebaran. It is an Arabic word meaning “the Follower.” To the ancient Persians, it was one of the four royal stars: the Watcher in the East.

Cornucopia

scramble

In November I gather up cereal and nuts, corn oil, Lea & Perrins, check the cupboard for garlic salt from last year. I find Mom’s recipe in the back of my battered Betty Crocker cookbook. I know the game now, but pull it out anyway and smooth it on the counter. I look over the instructions, typed in Courier on an IBM Selectric, for the oven temperature and Mom’s note that she used more cereal, more nuts, more of everything.

It’s an all-day roasting affair in a low oven with frequent gentle stirring working through two batches. I stick to tradition, never adding cheese crackers or mini shredded wheat, just the Chex and the Cheerios, five jars of mixed nuts without peanuts, stick pretzels. It’s been 20 years since Mom died in another November. Before Thanksgiving she always made gallons and yards and acres of this Scramble to give away in jars and tins saved throughout the year. I ship off a jar to Auntie in Davis, priority mail.

We should be driving across the state, through snow and ice, just across the Snake River, for Thanksgiving. My lumbar still feels the pull and ache.

Yesterday before sunrise I walked out in the dark in falling snow to check the road. I drove downtown through the muffled gray to High Street where snow turned to rain. I met the HVAC tech, Lonnie, in the parking lot for scheduled winter maintenance on the old building; it was built in 1909 as a boarding house and now divided into offices and upstairs flats. The heat pump arrays are fenced in and locked on the alley. I have the keys.

We work our way through each lock. I check the wall I painted last weekend over the same tag, same tagger, different color, when the temperatures held high enough. I walk over to Dutch Brothers kiosk and buy a hot chocolate for Lonnie and an Americano for me. We are outside in the cold for hours, Lonnie cinching down his hood and me fumbling for keys.

After I sign the work order, before Lonnie leaves, I hand him a bag of the Scramble. He asks if it’s trail mix and I shake my head and smile. Oh, he says, it’s that stuff, because does it really have a name we all agree upon? It’s a relic from mid-century America. He opens the bag and takes a handful to shake into his mouth, wipes salt from his whiskers when I wish him Happy Thanksgiving and hugs me.

riffle_island

 

 

 

Ashes

sunrise_frost

I found a grave beside the river.

The dog worried at a fork in the trail and turned to question, a branching we usually avoid that leads to a rise undercut by the current, a path obscured by a fallen tree. Mercy jumped the log. I followed her up the trail to the outcropping over the water.

Two branches lashed together forming a rough cross were staked in the ground, a family photograph attached below wilting wildflowers and weeds. Man, woman, boy, girl, posed in some department store studio trying to smile. I called the dog in. Two plastic boxes rested on the narrow end of the tree jutting over the river, lids ajar, white labels on each box “Organ Donor.” There was more, but I didn’t read it. I took hold of Mercy’s collar. Down below us on the river rock under shallow water, white silt sunk and unstirring, ash and bone.

We walked back along the road. My hat felt too tight. Mercy fell in step beside me instead of straining at the leash. I watched her as we walked away. For a quarter mile, more, we saw no one. Fog licked at our heels.

Lines we recite to ourselves walking and waking, stepping between borderlands, the bardo, hoping to find the necessary incantation.

“Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man.” 

Beloved Mercutio, you are the true tragedy come from those stupid star-crossed lovers.

The notes from the violin are always leaving.”

I didn’t write that line, Phil did. He said it was after a Rilke poem, so long ago I don’t remember which, how nothing evaporates, only expands into eternity.

After my wisdom teeth were removed, Phil and Tom came over with quarts of malt liquor hoping I’d share my painkillers. I didn’t want any Colt 45, but gave them each some codeine. When the beer was gone, Phil heated a stove burner to high. He rubbed two butter knives over the stove coil until they were glowing red and then pressed chunks of hash between the blades to raise plumes of blue smoke.

In the morning, after I’d thrown out the poets and gone to bed, I found the blackened knives crossed on the counter in a scattering of ashes.

Work

“You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”

–Alexander Chee

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”

Mystery

river_rock

I worked on the 14th floor of the bank tower in downtown Portland. As part of June’s Rose Festival celebration, upriver bridges lifted for ships to pass through to dock downtown. Crowds gathered to greet sailors at the docks, to stand in line for tours along the towering decks. No one returned to witness the cranking castoff and engine reverse at the end of the pageant, when the ships turned their steel bows back out to sea and rose petals blew black on the sidewalk. I watched from the tower window.

I rode the Burnside bus. My stop came at the foot of a pocket park between the bank tower and Mary’s Strip Club. There are upright canines plying downtown streets, the jackal-men, the wolves, coyotes, and hounds. One December morning, I stepped off the bus behind two men. One pulled a package of raw chicken from the waistband of his pants, meat stolen a dozen blocks up Burnside from the Safeway store where they boarded. As I crossed the park, one tore the plastic wrap away, crouched down and ripped at the dimpled fat with yellow teeth, vapor from their co-mingled breath wreathing as they huffed at flesh and disappeared in fog.

Sometimes I took the elevator down to the street to smoke, coat-less in the cold. I wore cobbled black pumps like retreaded tires and shivered in a faux-silk polyester blouse. When she saw me braced against the wind on the sidewalk, Audrey turned her loopy-wheeled shopping cart up 5th to ask for a cigarette. Her left eye was lazy and drifted to doze as we talked. She traveled with an old Yorkie bedded down on the black plastic bags stacked in her cart. When I gave her a cigarette, Audrey tucked it behind her ear and drew down her navy surplus cap. She didn’t smoke, she said, she needed to trade it for something to feed the dog.

I walked the pedestrian alleyways and sidewalks downtown. Coyotes crouched on flattened cardboard drumming stubble cheeks with stained fingernails. I worked my way across city blocks diagonally, crossing streets as traffic ebbed and stalled, skirting construction pits, smoke-eyed poodles with pink hair and script tattoos, wolves with red silk ties wheeling Humvees into valet parking. I moved to another city and took another job in another downtown, another one skimming the concrete fringe, searching out my own reflection in plate glass windows.

***

In the freezing fog of November, the camp in the oaks collapsed to a heap of canvas and nylon, a single shoe, broken glass. We walk up river, skirting crushed plastic bottles and clothing shreds the dog takes into her teeth and thrashes, if I let her. This one is a pirate seeking booty. I scout the ground as we walk, scanning for the glint of needles or orange syringe caps.

We pick our way down the bank, over black rocks, to the river. Great Blue Heron fish alone, still as snag, feathers blending with the timbre of the current. Sheltered by reeds and overhung alder, I startle a bird from her reverie beside an eddy. The heron cries out before launching aloft over the river. Chastened, I counsel the dog as we watch her flight dissolve in the mist.

The scent of water and wet dog settles over me, walking out singular, but not alone, into the open places, another vagrant, another mutt looking for home. There may be meaning in daring a place among this enigmatic array of earthly things, though it eludes me still.

I whistle for the dog and walk out, listening. These secrets are beside the river, if they are anywhere. There are fierce shy birds hidden there along the bank, birds the color of water.