What is love but feasting atop a grave? Mother’s Day and the Catholic cemetery is packed with barbeques, Mariachis and plastic tablecloths laid for picnics. There, alone with his hands pressed into a burial mound and in the cool shade of a concrete angel’s wings, a boy sits crosslegged. He could be a yogi concentrating on the orderly column of black ants that carry, one blossom at a time, yellow mesquite flowers to their eggs underground, except that it’s Mother’s Day, and he is as alone as he’ll ever be, staring at the empty curl of his fingers holding nothing but the distant mourning of doves. At desert noon even the dead enjoy singing that braids heat waves shimmering molten lead between spring blooms. My friend has come to speak to her mother riding the spirit horse of memory along an underground river this past year. She lights a candle and brushes debris with her tender palms from the ant-tilled soil above her mother’s ghost face. Walking between graves, her skin fills with a guitar’s laughing blue chords, with charcoal smoke, with the boy’s mute hands, with loneliness spun by hot wind each afternoon under the invisible birth of stars, where the dead begin to remember their names.
I Have an Illegal Alien in My Trunk
Just north of the border, the migra doesn’t consider this bumpersticker a joke. Only a chihuahua without papers, maybe a pair of pawned cowboy boots would fit in the trunk of this mini SUV driving Oracle swarming at rush hour. Even though half of Tucson’s traffic speaks Spanish, the legislature’s declared English the only legal fuel—it’s the same Continental Divide stubborn and paralytic as the steel-plated wall insulting our nation’s learning curve as it cleaves us. For over seventy years my grandma’s high cheekbones were illegal. Lovely as a tiger lily she spoke the six severed tongues dividing her heart. In a grave that does not spell out her name in any language, she is beyond the shovels of police who would have to dig up her bones to deport them back to a village outside Prague, where beneath a Catholic church are layered the crumbling skulls and femurs of her ancestors slaughtered by centuries of wars. I am safe in my adobe house with its rainbow nations of chuckling quails, pyrrhuloxia, phainopeplas, choirs of mockingbirds, skitterish verdins and purple finches, coyotes, javelinas, rattlers, scorpions, collared and leapard lizards, and the not so silent majority of English sparrows who accommodate too easily to walls—there is not one passport among them. The cactus wren weaves her tough nest among the barbed thorns of the cholla, while round-eared gophers construct complex subways for their babies to run under chainlink fences separating yards. Each day along the border of our sealed hearts gleaming with coiled razor wire, traffic idles waiting for armed guards to pillage each car trunk for contraband people and drugs. I have seen our agents rip out the interiors of vans, spit commands at old women with black hair and dark skin. Sanitary, they use rubber gloves to deconstruct the meagre grocery bags and plastic purses of common lives. Indians are particularly suspect, even though reservations were drawn like tumors by both governments to spill across borders, so that whole families are amputated like unnecessary limbs. This morning walking the Rillito River, we read bilingual signs warning the thirsty not to drink irrigation water slaking imported ornamental bushes & flowering trees. This year, statistics say, twice as many border crossers will die of thirst in Arizona. Who can stop tongues alien or otherwise from swelling black at noon. After all, in the barbed wire waiting room of the heart there is no seating for sentiment nor room for the frail arms of hope to save strangers, even if they are nursing mothers or desperate fathers looking for work who haven’t yet learned the English word for por que. After all, waging a war on terror like any war is not for the faint ambitions of the humane, so, in the game of homeland security, we erect a bulletproof wall across the borders of our souls that guarantees destruction must win.
A Short History of Falling
for Namgial Rinchen
Sweet Babel of birdsong syncopates dawn’s light as bruised as the hematoma oozing under the skin of my left knee. Sudden leaves reshape trees and the delicate longing of tree frogs pipes snow into a bad memory old as falling. My knee still aches from Sunday’s tumble on the pallet I didn’t see over the stack of sawn aspen I carried for the night fire. Unmindful, I tripped on an iron fence stake cockajar against the woodpile, this time breaking my fall with my palm’s life line.
My history of falls is unkind. At five, I plunged through a rotten barn board all the way from the hay mow while shafts of numinous straw whirled like moths on fire past my Dad shoveling manure. I smashed into the concrete floor wet with cow piss near the Holstein’s hooves. Her licorice eyes were big as my fists as she bawled at me this first lesson of gravity.
At ten, when I slipped on ice running for the school bus, I lay on my back watching my breath and snow become the ghosts of bare maple limbs twirling blind white. Not wanting to move my spine’s broken porcelain, I froze hoping to melt into all that was pure and cold. When I couldn’t rise, my dad carried me in, cursing my clumsy and bruised tailbone.
Afterward, falls pocked each year, unpredictable as a broken clock, until I crashed in a midnight parking lot, both hands in my back pockets, boot catching the cement bumper turned upside down and painted with tar.
My chin cracked the curb first, breaking my jaw, then ripping three ribs from the sternum. What came from my mouth was garbled as birdsong, a blood murmur I mistook for a scream for help. What I remember are the three good people who walked around me, not stopping and the table full of cops I could see through the restaurant glass, who never shifted from coffee mugs overlooking the wounded rug of my body. What I remember is my lover’s face white as a terrified swan as he lifted me.
Above Mangyu Village, I hiked the thin trail far above tree line to sunset, bending to the infinitesimal in the shape of a plant I could barely see, petals the size of molecules, its yellow center smaller than a drop of blood, when the mountain tilted, and my shoes slid gathering speed on talus that rattled like oiled marbles of fate. I could not stop and wondered whether to fly off the ridge pressed flat so I wouldn’t somersault the thousand feet to the valley or to sit back on my heels as if my boots were skis. The last moment I grabbed the only thing that held the last rim, a turquoise rock.
The other climbers thought my yelling a joke, all but the Sherpa who leapt sure as a mountain goat, zen master of shifting stone, and snatched my wrists to yank me back to the path. We sat then, breathing for a long time, unwinding our stories like prayer flags strung out in Himalayan wind.
How do we ever thank who or what saves us? Namgial told me to look at the turquoise rock still clutched in my palm. We call that a god’s eye, he said, and there in one sea-colored facet was etched the eye almond as Buddha’s and open as if it knew, while above us, a Himalayan eagle incinerated before falling to the other side of the world.
Pamela Uschuk is the author of five books of poetry, including the latest, Crazy Love (Wings Press, April 2009), just nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and the chapbook, Pam Uschuk’s Greatest Hits (Pudding House Press, 2009). Her work has appeared in nearly 300 publications worldwide and is translated into a dozen languages. She lives in Colorado.
Photo of mural of Mexican woman and cactus by latetripper, Pixabay.