What would it be to live on this island of rock, licked by salt and luck, where the wind blows east and the monks pray west, the rest of the Gaelic folk layer seaweed and sand between leeward sides of rock walls and rain falls on no trees, soaks the homemade soil over years so some grasses can grow for the sheep who stare out to sea. This stone doorway frames the sky and sea and someone’s patch of green held by another wall of stone. Here, everything needs a crack, a corner, a gryke to take hold— what lives in crevices is what lives. What is limestone but solid sea—crushed bodies of coral and clams, the karst land soluble in water, sea melting back to sea. And me? Gone three generations here, I bring the usual hunger for history. There are many of us wandering this draft of grief for bones and names in the land— I find nothing here but tenacity on a windy rock with no trees, no place but stones to protect from the constant sea. No wonder when selkies peeled and hid their thick black skins, they longed to go back, to slip beneath the waves and into the liquid grace of seals. But only here on these burrens of stone scraped raw by glacial ice, blue arctic gentian in grykes next to red clover and saxifrage—cracks with gardens that travel and take hold—only here— together from mountain top and sea.
A Thin Line
Once, I saw a river of bats stream like black confetti over my head, fan out across the valley, wing and swerve to swallow mosquitos in their thin throats. Imagine: their winged hands in the dark air, their nipples and warm bellies and tiny shouts bouncing back the geometry of moth wings in an ocean of night.
I have a friend who placed them side by side— two skulls meticulously cleaned: wolf and bat— the same slide down the nose, hollowed caves for eyes, even those curved canine teeth. Almost identical except one was tiny, one could be crushed to crumbs between two fingers. He set them on his table made of black stone with fossils spiraled like shooting stars. We crouched on the floor, eye to eye, to see.
There’s not much between us on the sinewy earth. The sky is an eggshell that keeps us warm. Things repeat themselves—and then startle in their newness, the way bones are rivers for awhile, and then become river beds with curves and sockets where life pooled and chewed. Memory, too, circles back, the thick resting weight of your hands on me like a bat wraps her shawl of wings around the warm planet of her pulsing heart, the ice-light of stars a breath away.
The Way Things Sync Their Light
Fireflies in the dogwoods, I’ve heard, call to each other in constellations of blinks and resting waves of dark. Or when aspen leaves give up their green in one yellow sweep up the mountain. We could learn a lot if we surrender our names, watch as the first sandhill crane shifts and stretches a wing that becomes a thunder of rising and rolling cries, wings slapping the contoured air. A sound like that can rearrange whichever particular death you are speaking to.
We study intelligence in brains while murmurations of fish swarm the salt water current, rising up the pylons under the dock as the moon pulls. We know these things—bees dancing maps of nectar, mycelial nets dreaming between trees. Even cows still turn along the earth’s magnetic lines. There are jars of peaches in the cellar, yellow leaves dot the black earth. Light is swallowed and given back. But I want to talk about what comes after: the slip into sleep, the air in the woods when the fireflies go dark, the way my dead loved ones blow through me this morning—all at once, like they’re holding hands.
On the same stretch of road before the bridge, before the tide seeps in, turns road to river, before the tide drains out to crackling sedge and fiddler crabs, she sets her tripod in the mudflats on the edge, photographs those pools that emerge as eyes, watching reeling clouds, a scissoring hawk, the turn of hours in the sky. She bundles up for this in every season—the salt marsh muted in snow and slate-grey sky, summer’s sleepy shock of green, fall burning in rust and reds, and under the pools or washed up on the sand, gleaming like gladiator helmets, those ancient living fossils, horseshoe crabs with ten eyes on their backs, hitched with barnacles and flags of seaweed, vacuuming the sea floor to feed their blue blood, their tails that mark the earth’s spin to light and dark before fish had jaws and plants had flowers and the land was filled with a great mass of green that would become the fuel for our brilliant speed and hunger. It’s a strange time to be human. Oh, love song, oh witness, those circles edged in salt grass, each spin, each tide, we wait for those pools to emerge as eyes, the horseshoe crabs invisible under that reflected tossing sky.
Anne Haven McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and teaches English and sustainability courses as an associate professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poems have been published in Terrain.org, The Georgia Review, Tar River, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Fourth River, and elsewhere. In spring 2016, Anne was a writer-in-residence for the Andrews Forest Writing Residency.