Decameron

“Florentines carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the front doors, where anyone passing by, especially in the morning, could have seen them by the thousands. . . . When all the graves were full, enormous trenches were dug in the cemeteries of the churches, into which the new arrivals were put by the hundreds, stowed layer upon layer like merchandise in ships, each one covered with a little earth, until the top of the trench was reached.”

–Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron

Other plagues came from the East.

Italy was infected, the entire island of Sicily. Fleas with the pestilance rode rats invading just as Mongol armies swarm across the steppe, stowaways on merchants ships bound for Genoa. A Black Death a mere 20 generations ago. Perhaps half the population of Europe died, depending on the data used and the optimism of the analyst, perhaps only two-fifths, while Boccaccio wrote his hundred stories.

The scene opens in Florence. It is 1348. After solemn mass one morning, seven aristocratic young women decide it better to flee the infected city and withdraw to a country estate to shelter two weeks in hopes of escaping the pandemic. Three young men, distant kinsmen, are invited to withdraw with them in this scheme to cheat death.

In the fresh wholesome air of the Tuscan countryside, they agree to pass the time telling stories. Each day a theme is named and each day (excluding a day for worship and a day for personal matters) the young women and men share stories. This setting provides the narrative framework for the 100 stories of the Decameron upon which both Chaucer and Shakespeare borrowed and stole.

Is it all forgotten now? Ground as grist under that same mill that bore away the bones of a score of my mothers, who survived? My old university copy is here somewhere, still packed in a box probably.

I downloaded a PDF.

We have Costco, Chlorox, and Purell, if it can be found. We have polite terms for seclusion much as Boccaccio framed for his narratives: social distancing. Baseball games broadcast without a crowd in the stadium and interactive maps updated with infections and deaths every day at noon.

Will we have art such as this?

Herman Hesse set his 1930 novel of two friends in the time of the Plague. Narcissus remains in the cloister and becomes an abbot. Goldmund ventures into the world to discover life through the senses and, ultimately, strives to translate human passion into art. The two characters embody the tension between intellect and intuition, Sun and moon, the Appolonian and the Dionysian. Art is the union of the two, Hesse surmised, a new moon.

“O how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all, but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning . . . or wise . . . and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

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

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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~

 

 

Noir

“Do you tell fortunes?

I do.

How? With just an ordinary deck of cards?

I leave the Jokers in the deck.”

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.

Pick a card.

 

 

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

sun_oak_cloud

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

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.

–Robert Graves

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.