Monday, July 4, 2011

from my journal

A landscape reduced to it's essentials, surface and horizon and sky full of shooting stars on autumn nights. I think of papa and think of love for such land, with it's solitude and spare, sudden beauty. It was under this bruising sky that he taught me to pole a boat, to gig eels out of the muddy bottom, and I was left with the salty, unclean smell of his hands and the sense of his wartime tattoos displayed with pride. We'd take a shortcut home, across the good doctor's front lawn, hopping over fallen seckel pears. then came the sunset, and surcease from biting insects. You look sky high, to the v's and skeins of waterfowl winging in. You learn about the neccessity of some things, and that even what seems worst is excusable by the good lord. Chesnuts and elms that dot the greensward, green ribbons of shade stretching from one cathedral top to the next, where the hands of man don't shape the landscape. Baggy, Shaggy, the color of cinnamon, tin-roofed barns and perfect days for picking tobacco. I think there is a soul, a singular soul in all of us , who was not born by a country, because native sons take it for granted. Instead, I look for the stranger who falls in love with a land and makes it his own, for the big brothers of the world who take a creed and hold it high above their heads with a shout and leave life in noisy revelry for a cause. For mothers who paint their face easter-egg colors to swath in the steam at dinnertime, the aroma of black beans in a kettle and assembly-line fingers knitting scarves for winter and those tall-tellings of dusk-brushed bedtime stories that suppose fantasy. I look, in the faces I pass, for fathers with a will of steel to pledge their small, lame bodies to the earth for family. Fiddles play fairy-music that mingles with the soft sigh of night, and I am emptied of all my ease. The trees whisper, the decades blur and bend, and crows fill the sky like some vast black shattering of glass in an ill omen of things to come. We are, at the last, betrayed in life by our too-long living of it if nothing else does us in. My eyes go empty with remembering, and imagination follows the pen. Stories drop onto the paper like gum leaves in autumn, stories about bears and bobcats and men I've known. Stories that tell you about the way things use to be. Country's changing, that's for sure, but ghosts are hard to kill and, anyway, they don't take up much room. A place inhabited by men long dead, who still hunt like quiet heartbeats, fighting extinction, laughing together in the tangles of time.


I watched a long twilight envelope the farm - swallows and martins coursed, and the lonely call of a curlew sounded overheard. "Don't stay too long in this place, or it will capture you, and it will keep you!" my father had warned me a few winter's ago, laughing at his own misfortune at having been caught by the smell of crabs steamings, the croakers out of water burping their swan-song, pale green foliage cascading down stucco walls. The land lends me a soft sigh, having plenty to share, and it brings the smell of mowed meadows and cattle. A planet burns on the horizon, then the first stars appear. A line of purple dusk steals across in a band, then it is night. I'd have told him, so he would've known the greatness of the small life he'd lived, that he had learned to read music, he'd read it with seventy-two years: the music of colorful bruises, swollen ankles, and sore muscles. Of rivers that share the names of lost tribes, and locomotives creeping from the darkness to shake the earth. Of blue jeans on the line, of pancake breakfasts at the little league on the first day of small-game season. Of Saguraros crowned with cream-colored waxen flowers and towering buttles, mechanical pickers combing cotton and bouquets of irrigation tubes. His masterpieces were hammers clanging on anvils, of saws cutting through wood, of telling his daughter the stories his father'd told him. I'd last left him sitting by the glowing peat, his arthritic hands held out to the warmth. He died on the twenty-third of August, not leaving much to his legacy besides a daughter of the soil and a few half-finished fiddles that hung from the rafters of the barn.


The honky-tonks reeking, now, of stale beer and of love lost, sleep dumbstruck in the dawn. Beside the brazos, the mesquite and cottonwoods take shape in the dim pewter light. Bluesy crescendos of dixieland jazz played by a combo that cares. The timeless ritual of the mass unfolds to mariachi rhythms; guitars sob for a crucified god and worshippers raise their voices loud and strong for the redemption of us all. Semi-trailers roar along the interstate with hardwood logs and pigs for slaughter. Waves of black-eyed susans spring from the rubble of derelict cars. The regulars tell me that peach blossoms danced like loose-leaf snow from the bullets, and that you can buy panoramic postcards where X marks the spot of the murder. Plastered with maple leaves, covered in velvet moss, the random clusters of conifers defoliated by insects or fire, skeletal, ghostly, still straight. A living lost world, a kaleidoscope of kelp, an endemic eden, the heartbeat of older, gentler people who've gained wealth but lost love (for what it's worth). Battered cars or vans stuffed with clothes and children, windshields scarred by flying gravel- under streaks of gritty mud you can make out the defiant bumperstickers of clashing races, origins, ideals and wars fought for the land (Remember the Alamo!) Just passing through, lured by the mirage of freedom and a fresh start, never seeing past the gas pump: the hidden, self-absorbed world of those who, in their own way, have reached their destination. Abandoned riverboat, rusting in peace - day or night, the procession of searching headlights pass on. Fragments from infancy in gilded gold frame of the heart, flesh-toned crust and accidents of time that cloak corroded torsos. The taste of fried soft-crab, the scent of wisteria growing against mellow brick, and the whistle of duck wings in a starlit winter sky: stapled sharp and true as figures found on maps: davy crockett and silent cannons, springs green kiss and stately plantation homes built with the tobacco trade, fiddles that sing in ballrooms and mockingbirds in boxwood gardens. I could learn to love the history like a home.


I would point overheard and follow the red-tip robins by fingetip, tracing their forms across the skyline in lazy loops that inevitably led down to Ben's nose and cheeks and, still, his laughter is in my ears from those days I colored the sky across his sweaty skin. The scenes melt and twist into kaleidoscope realities, irish twined vines, pictish coiled snakes: the mist wavers and the sky changes to colorful cottoncandy between glances. Jewels in the dew-drenched bracken and glittering green-gold trees planted a century ago. White-washed walls brightened by flowers. Solid houses sitting snugly on the tractable land, old pastures of grazing gone to ruin. Clothes are hoisted dry on a simple twine line. Brother Ben and I spearing forkfuls of harvest hay, building topknotted loaves of winter fodder at the family croft on the weekdays. Home sweet set in black soil and grain, and down farther on the river a patchwork of eight barges pushed on toward the industrial corridor, where there are extra jobs to be had when the farm goes sour in the cold months. Hired hands make jaunty cat-calls, but Ben would grip my fingers and keep on, towboat horns lamenting the fog. Soldiers in olive drab that walk their picket fence of bayonets, and when Ben joined their ranks he said he was ready to be a man, expression of blue-eyed peace on the face of bloody, beating war. As sudden as the slap of an open palm powerfully delivered, bursting overhead in the distance: something like scrapnel, they say. Endless possibility hemmed by that great, swelling grief that washed the long grasses at twilight & stuck with me in bed before sleep. He would not return. The virgin mary on her mantle, surrounded by burning, waning candles. Ribbons of light traced the swirl of riverboat traffic: of people coming, people going. Gone. Ben died the way he lived, mama says even to this day, hiding her hurt by keeping busy and staying angry. I remember him ice skating on big bear creek in the lemon light of early morning, or parlaying corn into bourbon whiskey by the barrel-full and blowing malt-bubbles into the air with papa. Tobacco standing soft and golden, ready for cutting just past ole' horseshoe bend where he liked to catch catfish, a young ernest hemingway trouting with a silver C.P swing size #3: on bad days he'd lose every lure, on good he'd catch a handful of brookies, all bright as jewels and not much larger. He and god (I can only guess) make a meeting of the mighty. When Ben went, I had a distinct feeling of obligation to love all of the things he had loved, and the desire to take his place at my father's side.


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