eleven

sun settles, half pink, behind city buildings.

ash-wing, come the clouds. tipped in night, wreathed with coming dreams, wind sifts through branches. down, down, to my waiting face, cool air tangles helmet and words. he turns, helmet in hand.

this, this version i know. i know him best in this world. helmet to chin, i know his face. so many places, so many ways, i do not recognize him. but here, here at the rock, his silhouette, his smile, his face, i know so well. we have done this a hundred hundred times. we will do it a hundred hundred more, before the end of knowing.

we are habitual safety, familiar friendship.

rope is in, loop, loop, out. around, under, over, out. rope whispers through my hands. it has been too long, since we were tangled with gravity, leaning against rock, tasting sky.

i am fingers to rope, hand to side, eyes to sky.

it has been so long since i needed to look while tying my knots. we are both here, lost in an economy of being. small words, short-hand, we telegraph our knowing. he knows the curve of me against the harness.

we check the knots, we check the harnesses.

there are no hugs, no kisses. we never learned the language of scripted romance. we only know this, open air, sky hopes, and rock-faced peace. i fit against his shoulder, we lean together, move in and out of the bag for our gear.

we are figure-eighted to each other, a line of safety runs from me to him, him to me. we are. we are together. i finger the surface, fake rock, impressive texture. feet bared to ground, he forgot our shoes.

we will climb anyway.

‘i remember when i finally figured out how to tie this knot’

he looks up from coiling the rope, a small nod, a smile. i know he’s there.

‘i’m so glad you took over teaching me to climb. i think i would have quit.’

and we’re ready.

he used to lead, he used to climb first. he placed all the first pro, and clipped our ropes to rock. he led, i followed.

today i lead.

‘on belay?’

‘belay on.’

‘climbing.’

‘climb on.’

i fit myself to rock, fingers chalked with peace. sky calls.

we are still, still, against night’s promise.

we never managed to knit our selves, our bones, our hearts, with the g-d of making and being. we never managed to acquire that worship and study time together, or the proper roles. we slid along the edges, stone and snake for bread. we came, we tried, we listened, we prayed. but g-d never found his way into the us of our togetherness.

i have left g-d, i leave every day.

he has not, and yet we are still the us we have been. a little more solid, a little less afraid, a little more belonging, they all twist up into the rope. from me to him, from he to me, we have braided up the light.

he holds my rope, and i climb.

bread

clock’s hands push towards lunch.

we rustle, settle, rustle, settle, restless for the bell. everyone’s lunch stays in the kitchen, so there’s no stealing. lunch is earned, one verse, one right answer at a time.

so everyday, we are a polite line of  ‘good morning, ma’am’, lunch to basket, coat to hook, feet to chair. it is bible-open time, pledge-saying time, learning-time. we memorize the chalk lines across the board. there are no questions, no asking, only memorizing. for every right answer, clock moves farther away from morning.

lunch is coming.

last night, dinner smelled so good. and i cleaned and cleaned, each plate lined up against the sink. food muddied and cold, i know better than to steal. frijoles and tortillas, sour cream, lettuce, and tomatoes. all is accounted for.

but there is lunch.

clock keeps ticking, we recite our prayers. each word hoping, sifting, sighing towards light. 11 o’clock, light brings yellow hope into our basement room. mrs. teacher begins to smile.

‘Class, line up for lunch.’

‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last,’ i hear his words.

they are everyone’s words. somehow the first are always first.  the last, are last.

i know my place.

table’s set with food, we line up, we pray again. there is never enough of g-d blessing our food, never enough of confessing.

‘Give us this day our daily bread, forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.’

we owe so much to g-d, it is unending.

i hope lunch is not cold.

‘What is that? What is that you’re eating?’

white bread and bologna, american cheese, her hands are layered with normal. nice squares divided into triangles. everyone knows that triangle sandwiches taste better than anything. she has potato chips.

i wish we had store bought bread.

‘it’s tortillas and frijoles.’

‘You mean it’s dog poop, that’s what you mean. You’re so gross.’

‘no, it’s not.’

‘It is, and you know it. Your mom is a n*****. That makes you one too. You can’t pretend. Your hair is n***** hair. You’re so ugly.’

‘that is not true! it is not! we are mexican.’

‘Shade, if you can’t be quiet, you will have to visit the principal’s office for correction. Please remember, ‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child…’

‘but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.’

‘That’s right. I’m glad to see it’s finally sinking in. Now eat your lunch.’

mrs. teacher walks away.

i wish we had white bread and bologna.

rain

rain fell fast and hard, my head was finally wet.

skin to scalp, hair soaked down my back, ball was moving. mud between my toes, we slid from stop to start with the water.

voices lifted from side to side, languages and laughter mingling. where english stopped, where laughter started, was something i could not tell. everyone knew each other already, they’d been 1, 2, 3, and 4 years friends in the making. not just at school, but from before.

i was new, the kind of white-faced new that somehow found a place.

‘here. what language do you speak?’

‘english.’

‘no, silly. what other language do you speak?’

‘oh, that. spanish. i speak spanish best.’

‘ok, we have latin america vs the world. you play soccer right?’

‘sure.’

and they ran, and ran. across grass, across mud. world would score, latin america would score. and people would laugh. they’d trade ball back and forth with good-natured insults. pidgin to kikongo, swahili to tagalog, teeth flashing, feet flying. they told secrets with the passing of ball.

and i watched.

rain blurred faces and shapes. we were wet shirts and jeans, spanning continents with our feet. mud to grass, stone to tree, they ran. they ran like it mattered, they ran for joy.

and i ran too.

step, slide, step, slide, eyes on ball, black-white, black-white, it spins. i am feet to ball, running. rain disappears, voices stop. there is only one small globe. continents measured, even, congruent. oceans of black, oceans of white. we live, we lie, we sleep, we wake, upon truths of yes or no.

i was running.

he’d always say, ‘Shade, if you don’t manage to keep your head in the game, you will never amount to much. And anyway, only boys play sports.’

but ball was spinning, spinning, and it sang through grass. until full force, skin collided, granite silence, it stopped. voice echoing, time slipping, i floundered for escape.

hands reached out, ‘hey, slow down for a minute.’

and he laughed.

‘what’s your name again?’

‘i’m shade.’

‘hey. i’m north.’

owl

night scrapes by, uncertain, unwilling

it is the deeping time, when everyone sleeps. their dreams wander back and forth. the little sighs of christmas, a deeper snore from north. their dark runs soft-foot behind them. arms flung, blankets tossed, they sleep the same way. they are full-trusting, gravity never broke angry on their skin. i still do not understand.

hour by minute, house settles around my skin.

tonight’s moon already set, soft and quiet, into shadow. it was fingernail holding so hard to sky, until it fell. moon’s supposed to promise dawn, but night’s still strong. owl holds sway, the hooting rattles our windows. it is these darkest nights, she comes to hunt. all the little scratching, biting, eating voles. they chew their way into everything, little nagging shapes that steal the best of our food.

hand to glass, i count stars. handful by river, they gleam.

by starlight, my dreams cool, they harden. little shards of yesterday, they cut between my hopes. there’s no breath left tonight. but moon, the moon, has set into the west. coyote song tilts at dark’s teeth, taunting, hungry.

all the mountains shoulder themselves dark, darker, darkest, against star-rivers.  wind rustles, just a little bit, worn from a day’s plowing of tumbleweeds. wind’s fingers are soft, coyote is far enough away.

i am foot to grass, dust and dark.

stars light my way. here there are shades of dark, depths of being. no truest shadowless night, but a sighing living wonder of star to black. there are no doors, no locks. by 2, by 3, constellations dream. i find the horizon, east and east.

i wait for dawn.

cake

all the thousands wake me, sun to sky, morning.

bare foot, free, i shed night’s shadows. day sings inside my head, ‘birthday, birthday, birthday.’

there will be cake. there will be presents. all the books say that this is how it is.

they promised, and i have been so good.

trees have fingered all the clouds, they sing too. grass cries out, dry, dust-bone, brown, slicing up dirt. world is so dry. preacher says that if we pray, rains will come.

we must all pray, and pray for rain.

i stop.

fingers to bark-skin, tree breathes for me. tree prays better, tree never sinned. tree never broke the law. but the leaves are all crackled, worn, lost. it is the dry time. we have not prayed enough.

‘Shade? Shade? Where have you gone? We have to make your cake!’

circle-circle, round-round, their sides are gleaming. 3 round pans, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, eggs, all lined up in order.

‘Read this recipe. I hope you get it right. This is important.’

we are making german chocolate cake. because it’s his favorite, and it’s mine. we all like german chocolate cake. it makes him happy. he likes brussel sprouts, and mushrooms, and peas. so i like them too.

if i like enough things, i will be his.

‘Measure this. Be careful, we can’t make a mess.’

dust and cocoa, eggs to sugar, we watch her fingers fly. mixer circles up the ingredients, layering light and sugar, until it’s dripping from the beaters.

‘Here, have a beater. Don’t make a mess.’

and chocolate spills across our mouths. we all are chocolate, sweet, laughing minutes of cake. she is light in the room, all soft edges, apron and skirt dusted with hope.

there will be cake.

‘Don’t you lick that. Don’t act like an animal.’

the beater is clean, but my fingers have chocolated the rest of it. it’s sweet, and i am hungry.

fingers to mouth, my teeth find skin.

always rain hovers, horizon driven. gray gray, heavy, flashing the deeps. one, one, two two, lightning jumps cloud to cloud. g-d’s talking in klicks. obedience and reverence will bring the rain. grace and mercy bring the rain.

lightning finds its way inside.

we are thunder and lightning, waiting for the rain.

home

july dances sunward, we drift hazy dawn to dusk.

crops green, even under desert’s harsh light.

water and wind tangle on the peaks, gray and heavy, they never stray. all our water comes from the mountains. everyone out here measures the inches, the fury, the power of the storms. they count the drifts’ hopes, all through winter’s ice. until summer’s wilding melt-water canals run full.

i watch lightning slice cloud from dust.

our high desert, our home, it shimmers like everything they promised heaven would be. but it’s here. blue to blue, there is so much light. even at 4am, i can find light from the darkness. this must be what people feel when they say ‘home’.

i am home.

‘Hello? Shade? I have missed hearing from you. Have you been too busy to call me?’

‘oh, hi, mom.’

‘I suppose since you moved so far away, you’ve forgotten your family?’

‘no, no i haven’t. i’ve just… i haven’t felt like talking.’

‘Oh, well, that’s no excuse and you know it. We love you so much. I don’t understand why you had to move so far away. Don’t you know you do better with us around?’

‘oh, i like it so much out here. it’s quiet, and there are mountains. we love it.’

‘You don’t know what’s good for you, not really. I can’t believe you talked North into going that far away. He should know better than to listen to you.’

‘his job is good, we like it out here so much.’

‘Well, I suppose I’ll have to have Jaeger talk with him. He needs to learn what family responsibility means. You need help raising Christmas.’

‘he’s fine. we’re doing fine.’

‘You need to be careful with him, that he doesn’t turn out like you. I wish we’d started younger with you, tried harder. I suppose we can’t change that now.’

he’s face-pressed to window, watching light and shadow move along ground. trees waving, scraping against sky, he is blue-blue to the world. his toys are 2 and 3, grouped by shape and size. his world shapes around light, laughter, hope.

‘he’s not like me. he’s not like me at all, he’s a good boy. and we love him so much.’

‘Well, you just never know.’

‘i have to go now.’

‘Well, you’re always in our hearts and in our prayers. Remember, I love you.’

wind blows from west to east, tumbleweeds gather. small conclaves, rootless wanderers. it is the seasonal migration of crooked lines and spiky weeds. they jump, they wheel.

my words are lost.

this is my home.

lunch

‘Shade, come in. We were just finishing here.’

it is sun-bright, grass is still almost soft from spring. desert’s summer has yet to steal green from the ground. it’s been two years since we moved, it’s my first invitation to someone’s home.

she holds the door open, skirt brushing the tops of her bare feet. hair reaching down her back, it’s pulled neatly away from her face with a ribbon.

smiling, she waves us inside.

‘Well, I suppose you didn’t have time to dress nicely today? That’s ok, it’s just us. No need to worry about appropriate clothes.’

suddenly my jeans and sandals feel grubby. christmas laughs, though, squirms from my grasp. there are bright toys, and little boys.

we are here to make friends.

‘Jadon, Jabin, Jael, come here, please.’

they come with smiles, they come quietly, quickly, to stand in a line.

‘yes, ma’am, mama? yes?’

‘These are our arrows, aren’t they fine? They are 3, 2, and 1.’

they’re still standing side by side, the baby wobbles his hands, but the bigger two hold him steady. they are collar-clean, jeans, and short hair. they seem happy.

‘I couldn’t help noticing you at church on Sunday, and I wanted so to meet you.’

‘really? i don’t remember seeing you, but christmas was kind of wiggly. i think next time i will just let him play in the nursery.’

‘Well, the nursery is available, that’s for sure. But if you do that, you’re depriving him and yourself of a valuable training opportunity. Children need to be in church. You know there weren’t always nurseries. Do you think children ran wild during services?’

‘well. no, but..’

‘It’s ok. Let’s have lunch. We can talk more later.’

offers to help are waved gently away.

‘I want my boys to know how to take care of themselves, they can set the table.’

and they do. it’s almost perfectly laid out.

walking to the table, they stand behind their chairs waiting. her hands move to straighten little pieces here and there.

‘You know, this is almost good enough. If you try really hard, I’m sure you won’t be so careless next time.’

we sit to eat.

‘Shade, how old is Christmas?’

‘he’s almost 3.’

‘So really he’s old enough to know better.’

christmas is, as ever, light in a shadowed world. bright eyes, he shines with wonder. he is a gift, surprising wonder from an increasingly painful g-d.

half sign-language, and half words, delight colors everything. he trusts good in the world, he is not afraid of failing.

‘i’m not sure what you mean.’

‘Well I saw how much noise he was making in church.’

‘well, yes, he was hungry. and it was a long service.’

‘That’s no real excuse, and I think you know that. Have you noticed how nicely my boys sit in the service? They make not one peep the entire time. We don’t use toys, we don’t use bribes. They know what they are to do in church.’

i feel the listening, the waiting. i’m not here to make friends, i’m here to learn.

‘Oh, you know. It’s so important for our children to receive the nurture and admonition of g-d every sunday. We have church training every day.’

‘what’s that?’

‘I have the boys sit on the couch. They sit up straight and quietly. We do a teaching, we do songs. If they wiggle, they get correction. If they get up, we start over.’

‘Make no mistake, children are work. You need to train them right, or you just never know.’

she reaches past me into the shelves.

‘I think you need to read this book. It’s helped me so much.’

unthinking, my hands extend.

title slams into my skin, ‘To Train up a Child’.

it hangs between us, a book, an offer of teaching, possible friendship.

i do not know how to say no.

4th

sun’s spiked into my eyes.

they turn and turn on the green, blue blue white white, all their uniforms run together. they all look the same.

‘Stand up straight.’

her fingers pinch into our shoulders. we, attention-straight, stiffen further. hands to side, we wait. stars and stripes, they fly the field. the spangled song commands our feet and hands.

we are patriotic soldiers.

‘Where’s Daddy?’

cairn’s voice splits the hushing roar between units.

‘hush!’

alder’s hands are faster this time.

‘And hush, she didn’t give you anything to cry about. If you can’t act like a man, I will have to tell Jaeger. You don’t want that, do you?’

it was always the uniform that divided him. jaeger walked, jaeger hunted. the daddy person might laugh, he might smile. his anger ran hot hot towards the ground.  the daddy person sometimes would even share cookies.

but jaeger owned the dark.

like his language, jaeger shaped the monsters in the shadows. he gave them teeth.

his unit was small, only 5. that was enough jaeger for each of us, but today there were hundreds of jaegers on the field, hungry, waiting. parade starts, cairn straightens.

no more tears.

noise from the horns, from the drums, they pound into my skin. it is louder than reveille, shaking up light and shadow. cloud covers up the sharpest edges.

‘Remember, you never know when I’m watching,’ his voice runs loud inside my ears.

i don’t know how to forget.

‘It’s a big base, Shade, but everyone knows you are mine. If you get into trouble, I will know. My C.O. will know. You are either a credit or a disgrace. Is that understood?’

‘sir.’

‘And if you can’t be a credit, at least try to not be a disgrace. It’s my career your actions are affecting.’

straight, straighter, straightest, we stand stand. sun’s burning my eyes. i wish for deepest shade, cool and dark. i wish for the basement’s closed spaces.

there, it’s quiet. the shadows don’t jump. there are no bright noises, there is only the deeping quiet of alone.

but it’s parade day, and there might be ice cream.

i stand straighter.

zone

‘Tell me, Alder, were you listening to The Word today?’

‘sir, i was,’ she rings out crisp clear words into the car.

we are all hot-pressed into seats. road bends away from sky, tree to tree, they reach up up up. cloud tangled, they’ve been praying all day. it’s sunday, g-d’s day. our only words are to be prayers, so every tree obeys.

‘Even the rocks would cry out,’ he loves to say as we walk.

we’d be hand-pinched into his shadow, bible verses raining down. faster than light can shed dark, his words steal all the green. when he talks, dark sinks into my bones.

sign by sign, the letters move past us.

10, 20, 35, 45, we are going going. trees dip against sky, i want their hands, their bark. but we are rough-edged into the back seats. today we learned about the second coming. today we learned more about hell, and the tribulation.

‘Are you saved? Have you truly received G-d’s salvation? I tell you now, that these are the last days. In these days there will come men who speak of G-d and yet they are liars. They will deceive you with pretty lies about grace and forgiveness. I am telling you this day has come. Are you prepared?’

everyone nods, ‘amen’ is the by-word.

‘When that trumpet sounds, when J-sus comes back, judging the quick and the dead, will you be ready? You might be walking, you might be driving, you will be doing something, that is certain. J-sus will come like a thief in the night, and you had better be ready. If you are not, you will be left here.’

‘When all the righteous have been brought up into heaven, the beast will come, and his mark will be writ large in the world. Everyone who is left behind will be brought before this beast, and marked. I tell you they will be marked with the number of the beast. You will surely die, if you are left behind. One way or another, satan will have your soul.’

the fan above me circles ’round and ’round. it is not enough to move summer from the building. it is only enough to count.

1, 2, 3….

‘Believe and you will be saved….’

4, 5, 6…

‘The heart is deceitful. Do you know for certain, without a shadow of a doubt where you’d go. If you died tonight…’

21, 23, 29, 31…

‘If any of you here today are not sure. If any of you here today have not asked J-sus into your heart…’

and it’s ‘just as i am’ until enough repenting has happened.

we leave for home.

alder slides against me. shoulder to shoulder, her face is wet. she repented today, all the way up to the altar. she prayed and prayed, everyone made the smiling faces.

‘speed limit 45. what’s that mean?’

‘Shade, are you so stupid you can’t read?’

‘no sir.’

‘Then don’t ask useless questions. They are a waste of my time.’

1, 1, 1, 1, 1, road tells secrets one by one. so i count.

‘no passing zone. what’s a no passing zone?’

‘Did you bother to listen today in church? Did you understand anything about what Preacher was saying?’

‘sir, i listened. g-d will come back and take the good people.’

‘Well, this sign means if you are here when J-sus comes back, that you can’t go. You will get left behind like you weren’t saved. But you’re not really saved anyway.’

‘that’s not true.’

‘Don’t call me a liar. I know what I’m talking about.’

white light fills the car, my face is burning. i count the seconds until we leave the no passing zone.

and i pray, i pray that g-d won’t come back yet.