Chairs in the tiny waiting room are too close and our knees might brush if someone else entered and sat down. There are slush stacks of grimy magazines. Try not to touch anything. The fan vent, or perhaps it’s the whir of various diagnostic machines, cycles a whine that repeats it sounds like a bear.
A colorized black-and-white film with a smear of pink lipstick.
The tires slap on the highway tunneling through dark fir phalanx in every direction and passing semis spray the glass before the wipers salute and return. A man in a cave, or possibly not a man. A bear. A gnome with a red beard fathered by a bear.
Queen of Diamonds crossed by the Two of Hearts.
Off the highway pull into a truck stop furiously lit with humming florescent floodlights. Green skin in the mirror scaly as a slyth and liquid silver eyes. I thought I’d outgrown all that.
Solitary men slouched on vinyl booth benches, backs to the wall and faces to the door, newspapers folded on the table next to mugs of coffee and plates of toast. They look up when the bell on the door jingles as it opens without raising their heads, just their eyes. Home fries, not hash browns, scrambled, not fried. Coffee, yes. Do you have cream? Plain cream, not this vanilla kind.
Ten of Spades follows behind.
No one is wearing a mask. A black and orange warning sign over the door to beware of nuclear isotopes, as though they might be dodged as easily as a flock of gulls, an exotic virus, a besotted stalker. No food, no drink, no smoking, no lipstick.
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.
Far away from down the hill, a child cries. The wailing swells and then suddenly falls away.
The river is full and fast, deceptively swift. The dog pulls toward the old boat landing where she likes to swim, but I nudge her the other way, toward the fresh-filt canals where geese and wood ducks shelter.
It’s last quarter moon, gauzy and gray, dissolving since the eclipse brought storm and havoc. Ringed by snow in the foothills embracing the valley, the mountains wait. A winter’s snow pack fell in the Cascades over the course of the moon. Wind down the wick of this lunar year, before the Rat arrives, when the scenery changes with new parts and lines to learn.
Pheasant skim along atop the muddy fields. Mercy is preoccupied with ground squirrel burrows.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and so Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina.
Are there happy families? Or are there only eddies swirling after the rapids, a submerged spiral born from equal measure forbearance and exhaustion? Photographs of Britain’s ginger Prince are recycled every day on news sites announcing his break from a gilded royal family ward to earn his keep like an American. (Indeed, there are no kings are queens here, save commerce.) In other news, our US President is on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Crossing the bark path we meet a woman with a yellow Lab as tall as my chocolate. The dogs greet each other and we fall into step. When we turn toward the canals, they join us. A flock of Canada geese notice us approaching and toddle toward the water, I unleash Mercy to charge them and send the birds scolding. The woman releases her dog Mac, who is enthusiastic but confused.
“He doesn’t swim,” she says, “besides, it’s so cold,” I throw sticks in the water for Mercy and Mac wades along the reeds until finally he let’s go of his footing and swims.
We leave them to walk a loop along the waterway as rain spits down harder. Gray-on-gray, among bare branches and bristled fir, the flowering yellow petals of witch hazel glow alone.
There’s only stone now. Pour from the kettle in fingerless gloves, scant the honey, and save the bones for stock. Turkey vultures perch in the dying fir and spread their wings, not enough wind to dry in the mist, no rising thermals to hunt. They fly away north. It’s a long way down.
Solstice day the rain fell a river into the valley howling in from the Pacific. We lit the fire with rosemary limbs salvaged after February’s snowstorm, lengths of white holly from the tree cut down last fall. (Beware the Holly King I tell my son before he leaves for New Orleans.)
Take up the cauldron and brew. Sunday to the market, early with first light, where the staff are surly in their rumpled holiday sweaters stacking eggs and carrots, fresh loaves of rustic bread, hams and brisket for the crowds coming after me. Simmer soup from barley and beef shank, handfuls of thyme, Marsala wine, enough to share these days in the darkness when the sun stands in this liminal space loud with silence and phantoms.
My son wants his own iron pot as his gift. I go to a department store in the mall, out again at first light, and buy a fine red pot, the largest and iron heavy. I navigate down the escalator carrying it somehow, though I couldn’t see over the box, waiting behind two older women afraid to take the first step onto the unfolding case. “It’s a long way down,” one says to the other.
Wash the holly leaves and berries, dry it mindful of the barbs, arrange sweets around the sprig on a red platter. Bake the first pan of pasta, set to broil the final minutes to crisp the crumbs on top, pack everything into a basket insulated under a thick blanket. We go out in the early dark to join the company gathering to crack crab and hear O. Henry’s story read after dinner, The Gift of the Magi. Home then in the dark, sleepy and wine-filled, to feed Mercy and stroke her head beneath the starry lights of Christmas Eve.
What does it mean? I don’t know. For now, in this time of stone, the only certain succor comes from the kitchen; the dragon head in the moon’s own sign rages and needs feeding.
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.
Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.
Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?
Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.
Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.
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.
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.
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.
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.