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Outside Guevavi

February 20, 2007 5 comments

An occasional car Dopplers along South River Road, which contours the Santa Cruz River on our left. Melissa, my youngest daughter who has joined me today, suggests that we duck and hide at the sound of tires on the road. I know what she means; I feel it also. We’re too exposed.

We’re a few miles from our border with Mexico where the Santa Cruz River flows north into Arizona. Mount Benedict wrestles with the western skyline, its buried pediments squeezing the aquifer beneath us enough to bring water above ground in springs and surface flow—but not recently. Except for the occasional floods, water hasn’t flowed here regularly since 1993. Where the river channel swings wide in its sandy course along some low bluffs, laying up alluvial sediments in terrace after terrace, I imagine clustered pyramids of anemic cornstalks instead of the persistent seep willow and cocklebur. This could be the place.

To reach the bluff, Melissa and I climb a granite outcrop, gaining footholds in a rough seam that could once have been the runnel of a spring. We slip under a barbed-wire fence marked “US Boundary NPS.” Melissa, noticing other signs on the fence, turns her sharp blue eyes on me and says, “We’re trespassing. There’s nothing we can do here that would be legal.” I, too, am bothered by the plethora of “posted” signs. I recall news items about gun-toting vigilante ranchers, and I’ve seen Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security vehicles, both marked and unmarked, cruising these backroads on the lookout for people on foot. But I keep going.

At the top of the outcrop, I know this is the place. At my feet, a single round socket in the rock articulates a fist of loose stone—evidence of the river farmers. It’s a 300-year-old bedrock mortero, a grinding hole for corn.

I scan the high desert grassland spread out beneath the gunmetal Santa Rita Mountains in the north. Dwarf mesquite rise to eye level and stop, releasing my view—and then I see them, chocolate walls poking up from the thin, crooked trees, the jaundiced San Cayetano Mountains behind them. We walk through what once was Father Garrucho’s entry into his courtyard, even now a clear path on the ground, and turn right toward the ruins, climbing a slope of earth between two five-foot walls to enter the church’s nave. There’s not much here; the sun is still hot on my neck. These few adobe walls, bleeding back into the dirt from which they came, are all that remains of Arizona’s first mission.

In 1701, Father Eusebio Kino established the Mission San Gabriel de Guevavi at an Indian village of Guevavi (from an O’odham word, gi-vavhia, which means “big spring”). The tall, dark-skinned Jesuit with the penetrating eyes and pronounced brow was keeping a promise he had made to these people during his earlier visit in January of 1691 when he first stepped into what is now Arizona. But it wasn’t until the mid 1700s under the oversight of the Sardinian Father Joseph Garrucho that the church rose out of the baked ground to encompass an area about the size of a baseball diamond. The plans called for a rectangular church, fifteen by fifty feet, with three-foot thick walls of sun-dried adobe, plastered with mud, whitewashed, and then painted with colorful decorations on the inside. Standing high on this mesa, above an open courtyard and the many rooms—a school, kitchen, refectory among them—that hugged a square of perimeter walls, the church would have been an impressive sight for dozens of miles in all directions. And the visibility worked both ways. Off the southeast corner of the church’s narthex, a circular tower, unusual for missions at this time, would have given sentries a perch to watch for approaching Apache raiders.

We stand among three leftover adobe walls, the highest only about eight feet tall, all of them crumbling and chocked with rocks. A loose pile of horse droppings rests where an altar once held silver chalices. I remember hearing about archaeologists finding chicken bones and peach pits in the walls and how they were made by men and women’s hands, some not so willing or careful. I think about how the mission must have appeared two hundred and fifty years ago. Its plastered walls shimmering in the heat rising off this corrugated landscape. Arizona’s first White Dove of the Desert. Guevavi would have inspired more than native eyes.

I tell Melissa that we are standing over the bones of a man who was present as history swung on its hinges for this region: Juan Tomás de Belderrain, the first captain of the Spanish presidio at nearby Tubac and Arizona’s first European settlement, who was buried here about 1760. She lays her hand on a mission wall that has stood in our desert for hundreds of years, and I think about how these same young hands are touching hands with the ancients. History collects in the lifelines of her palms like dust.

“Why do we find it supremely pertinent,” asks Annie Dillard, “during any moment of any century on earth, which among us is topside? Why do we concern ourselves over which side of the membrane of soil our feet poke?” We may walk on this earth one layer at a time, but there are places where all the layers rise to the surface and we share the same elements with those long dead and with those yet to come. This desert of exposed millennia, of rocks and river terraces in mid-pause before being swept to the sea, takes me outside myself, reminding me that we are only for the time being.

by Ken Lamberton

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Matinal

February 19, 2007 1 comment

1.

Listen.
A twig snaps,
a leaf
turns,
two take
one breath.

2.

Dawn hasn’t come,
but while we wait
the air wakes and rains to earth;
night and day linger in a dream of muffled light
then tenderly divide.

Now you see.
Nothing breaks.

by K. Cohen

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The Long Mile Home

February 16, 2007 3 comments

24 hours. One day. One lifetime.

The walls are grubby, in desperate need of redecoration, faded to a bland grey yellow. Outside the late autumnal sun struggles to break through the windows, encased as they are in city grime. Sunbeams tiptoe round the outskirts of the ward lifting dullness like a light fingered thief. Hers is a window corner but this delicate radiance cannot touch her. She hasn’t pulled up the blind. She knows she must face it soon, prosaic city life.

Her friends said: “Life will never be the same again.” How true.

It is 8.30 am and the doctor has finished his round. Dismissing professional advice she discharges herself and leaves her overnight bag under the bed, snuggling down with dirt and disease. The lobby is quiet; a security guard nods at her. She shuffles towards the automatic doors and is assaulted by a blast of hot air. It blows her dishevelled hair upwards and slaps her shiny face with its man-made warmth. She lunges forward and a cold breeze whips her cheeks, unstockinged knees and forearms. An insignificant flurry of wind, a natural force, kisses her body and wakes her from her pain-induced slumber. Downy hair stands to attention and she realises with sadness and shame that she can still feel.

She’s alive.

It takes her by surprise, this feeling. The sun has set and risen only once since she staggered into the hospital, eyes glazed and screaming. She walks, head down, towards the pavement, off NHS property. The ground is spongy beneath her, trampoline-like. She is weightless, moon-walking her way to back to reality.

Outside the breeze blocks, central heating, plastic bed covers and acrylic curtains, she is once again a sentient being. Her battered, aching body is pulsating with life. She swears she can feel it healing. Denmark Hill lies before her, the small station in the middle distance, the road, damp black with residual dew and fog, the slow moving cars, the buses groaning as they struggle up the rise. Beige flats and red brick houses.

Her mouth still tastes of metal.

There is no sign of a cab amongst the swarm of morning commuters. Suzette waits a while, peering down the hill, searching for the amber glow of the ‘For Hire’ sign. If she squints, the cars look like beetles, jostling towards an unseen treasure, a pile of dung perhaps or rotting, leftover food. Then she remembers. She has no money, no identification, nothing. She has the clothes she wears and what should have been. Her purse sits in the side pocket of her bag and she will not re-enter the grey tower. Herne Hill and a flat that until now she would have called home is only a mile away.

“I will walk,” she resolves.

Clenching her teeth Suzette turns right and faces the hill head on. She is heading south on the eastern, shady side of the street. She will not cross over to the light and warmth. The paving stones are cracked. Moss and other plant life grow randomly in the grooves between the slabs. She marvels at nature’s instinct to survive.

Turreted Victorian houses line the route, sentries standing to attention, marking her path. Over the brow of the hill she catches a glimpse of the park, the wet grass winking at her in the sunlight. In her mind’s eye she sees the lido, the walled garden and the children’s playground. Like a butterfly round buddlia she hovers over the playground. Iron tubes in primary colours curling their way into children’s hearts. Swings creaking to and fro, shrieks of laughter, obstinate rages, querulous prattling, chasing games and babble deafen her. She can smell the children, pungent little creatures, all sugar and sticky farts. She wants to hug them tight.

Gloomier shadows still creep up on her as she approaches the railway bridge, dark and low and dirty, pigeons hiding in the eaves, chattering to each other, cooing, carelessly spilling their waste.

A flower stall trickles onto the pavement. Silver buckets of white lilies, carnations, roses and chrysanthemums illuminate the scene like a lone peacock in a sea of hens. Red knuckles and chapped fingers huddle round a polystyrene cup of tea the colour of wet sand. Its steam dances towards the sky. The flower seller’s brittle, yellowed nails are filthy. His fingers are engrained with soil; it is part of him, just as oil is elemental to a mechanic’s hands, regardless of how much Swarfegar he uses at the end of each day. He isn’t old, 50 maybe, but he is a man who has worked outside most of his life. His skin is parched, broken veins thread their way across his cheeks, open pores roam freely and a dew drop of colourless snot dangles at the end of his nose.

He is frozen, but living and breathing.

The scent of the lilies burns the inside of Suzette’s nose as she moves slowly by. She inhales deeply, taking in their perfume, drawing the rich powdery scent up into her brain. She feels dizzy, intoxicated by the aroma and then quite sick. She tries to quicken her pace to escape the pungent fumes but her legs are granite and the ground cut glass. Stones slice through the soles of her suede boots, shards of tarmac are ripping her feet. Senses intact, she is still alive. The hum of the traffic turns from white noise to a scarlet howl, scorching her eardrums.

Wind tears sting her eyes and through the cacophony of noise she hears a tiny mewling. In a tower, falling away from the light, the stars are gathering, huddling together, glittering, obscuring her vision. She is going to faint.

The earth should feel hard against her vulnerable flesh but it is a bed of feathers, a lake of down, caressing her bruised body, stroking her from the inside out and she weeps for the love of it. Suzette wants to stay here forever, in this tender embrace.

“Are you all right love?”

It is the flower seller, looking concerned and kind. Like a father, or a mother. She cannot open her eyes for she knows that if she does the true tears will come and may never stop. She clutches the towelling babysuit against her empty, bleeding womb. She feels its softness and her despair.

by Laura Wilkinson, editor of hagsharlotsheroines.com

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Owl

February 9, 2007 2 comments
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Into Great Silence

February 8, 2007 4 comments

In the abbey of the Grand Chartreuse
a monk kneels for the seventh time this day,
his lips moving silently,
his spine bent into its usual question.

Because he is the oldest they call him wise,
though sometimes he thinks he knows even less
than when he started.
Sometimes he wonders if this isn’t wisdom.

Outside, the first snowfall covers the mountains.
Blank and absolute
it offers itself to the mountain creatures,
it offers itself to their sure-footed hunger.
It offers them hunger.

by Esther Morgan

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My Mind is Troubling Me

February 7, 2007 3 comments
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Last week of the farm

February 6, 2007 2 comments

The herb gardens: gone.
Only sage remains, adrift
in a sea of soil and hay.
In the fields, dark rippled kale
overlooks a fuzz of winter rye.

Crows scatter from the squash
smashed atop the compost pile
as I approach. The mountains
are turning purple, turning pale,
leaves fallen.

It’s hard not to feel sorrow.
Even these sheep, looking up
from their salt lick to nose
a green tomato, are destined
for slaughter…

But look at the farmer’s house.
On a tall extension ladder
he tapes windows. Soon
seed catalogues will trickle
into the mailbox like rain.

by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi

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