Wednesday, November 30, 2016

We are sleeping in the mud. We are hearing you cry. I see you my child my darling my dear my love my life my hope my joy, my sunshine on cloud tops and breaking waves, my heart hears you cry and scream in the dark and we sleep on mud and moss and pine needles under the stars and by fires and our faces are smeared with charcoal. I love you I love you I love you, don't cry my dear my darling my life my love my hope my joy my sunshine on cloud tops my breaking waves my crackling flames and whistling kettle, my love we will be borne up from this, I promise this. This is not our end my dear my life my love my hope my joy my sunshine on cloud tops and breaking waves my crackling flames, my whistling kettle, my woolen blanket, my feather bed, we are not done yet we are not dead, we will rise from this, rise from the ashes on our faces streaked with tears, we will build a place here, in the mud and the pine needles, here in the cold, here we will build a place of warmth, oh my love my life my joy my hope my light, my sunshine on cloud tops and breaking waves, my heart my hearth my crackling flames, my whistling kettle my woolen blanket my feather bed

Sister Harriet

Sister Harriet stood in her doorway looking up the long slope of the valley towards the grandfathers' peaks. She stood still with her head cocked, just looking up at those old peaks, covered in snow, like a bridal gown. The white of the snow came down the sides of our valley, the place where our people had been born into the world and where we would die, God save us. Sister Harriet would stand in her doorway like that for hours and we could not tell if she was listening to something here, or if she was listening to God.

It was late winter and the dust in the streets had turned into a black muck that got all over shoes and boots and splashed up pant legs and clung to the hems of skirts. She could smell it coming. Spring was just around the corner, soon her mornings would be warm and filled with birdsong and sunlight and we would all be saved amen God praise us amen, God save us amen. God kept us all winter long amen. God and Jesus saved us amen. Like little lambs he blesses us and cherishes us and wipes away our tears like the melting snow.

This was Sister Harriet's twenty-fifth spring in our valley. The church in all her wisdom had sent her to us to teach us the bible, and to teach us the mass, and to teach us to say our prayers to Mother Mary who wept, and still weeps, for her son, for us, she who intercedes with the Lord on our behalf, begging him to be kind and gentle to us. Sister Harriet taught us all our catechism and our rosary and she was the only one who would stand up to old Father Elias who told us we were unclean for the color of our skins.

Here in the high mountain valley we called home oh the hills rising up above us where our fathers herded sheep and we wove that wool into cloths dyed with fire and flashing blue the color of Mother Mary's veil. The blue of forgiveness, that's what Sister Harriet taught us, blue is forgiveness, and that's why God spreads it over the sky. Showing us that our sins are washed clean from us like wool before it is dyed, washed clean and pure and white. Father Elias taught us to fear God. Sister Harriet taught us to come to the Lord and to come to Mary and bow our heads before them like we do to our own parents. Our fathers started to drink then. Started to take the wine and the liquors that had never spread to our valley until now. They started to beat us. We'd show up to Sunday school with black eyes and loose teeth and Sister Harriet would tut her tongue at the sight of it. We were too young to know anything else though. All of us little children, a chorus of innocence in a harsh mountain valley at the edge of the world where all we had were sheep and the river and the bright burning blue of forgiveness spread over the sky.

Sister Harriet stood in front of her little cottage, which our fathers and uncles and brothers had built, piling stones and mortaring them together until she had a snug little cottage that she could heat with her wood burning stove, things Mother Church provides her missionaries. Sister Harriet stood in front of her door, which she had to stoop to walk through, and she breathed in the air and smelled the coming spring and she praised God who keeps us, praised God who loves us and teaches us, praised Him who sacrificed himself to us, for us, for our sins. The mountain air was warm rushing down from the north, warm wet air rushing down from the north. Some days you would swear you could smell the hot wet jungles, smell them with their hidden dangers, with the screaming demons that lurk in the dark wet undergrowth, waiting to drag you down with their claws and teeth. Waiting to cloud your mind with their poisons and drugs. 

The grandfathers didn't go to church. They would sit out in the high pastures and sacrifice a ram. Sacrifice a ram to the old gods who had sheltered us for so long. They would chant and hum and sing and drink from a skin. Drink the urine of a man who had eaten mushroom caps and seen visions. He would then piss into a bowl and the bowl would be set in a high place, in a cold high place, so that the gods could touch it with ice. Then that man who had seen their faces, had seen the old gods faces, like long distant cousins, old ancestors who had worked and lived and died in our valley, old grandfathers the faces of our people, and he said they wept for us, said they cried out to us on the moaning wind, reached out their hands to us with the whispering pines, tried to embrace us as the earth someday embraces us all, he the one who had seen these faces and who knew their hearts, would take the bowl and clear from it the ice that had grown on it. Gently with his fingers he would clear the ice and then pour the bowl into a skin, into the sacred skin, marked with red, marked with the blood of ram after ram, dark red brown leather, worked and worried and polished with years, and he would pour the urine into the skin and pass it around, and each grandfather would drink from the skin and they would pass the skin until all had taken it into themselves, until all of them had taken the  voices of the ancestors, of the gods, of our long gone cousins, into themselves. In the firelight they would look into each other's eyes and see all the secrets a man hides from the world. All the shame and pain and fear that a man hides in himself, and they would see this in each other's hearts, laid bare by the old gods, and they would hum and sing to each other. Songs of brotherhood, songs of love and friendship, until the fire died down and then the gods would come and walk among them. 

The grandmothers had their gatherings too, but theirs was kept dark and secret and they did it in a cave that every child is scared to go in. They would lead a lamb, into the cave, into the dark place that they had prepared, a place they called the womb of the earth. A white lamb was carried there, and we were not taught what happened then. There are no windows into the womb of the earth. There are no fires in the warm wet cave the grandmothers prayed in. Their secrets are lost to us children. Mother church has broken our chains. 

Sister Harriet though we watch, we watch as she takes one of us into her arms, one of us who has been beaten by a father for some imagined disobedience. Sister Harriet takes one of us into her arms and wipes away our tears, like God wipes away the snow from the high hills,  and she makes one of us laugh, by tickling us and kissing us and singing sweet songs into our ear as she hugs us to her breast and we feel safe don't we? Safe there near her heart. She makes us feel safe there, safe with her. We love her.
We love Sister Harriet, as she stares up the valley, and looks to the place where the waters are rising, and soon there will be fish and birdsong and we will plant potatoes and the traders will come up the valley to us and we will give them wool, and they will give us dyes and then we'll move onto the summer pastures, and we will not see Sister Harriet again for months and months. 

She smiles up at the mountain peak. We think she smiles at us. We think she is smiling at God. 

Monday, November 14, 2016


Staring into that blackness in the center of a band of red. I've seen it a thousand times before in my life. It's the card that keeps coming up no matter how many times I cut the deck. This is my story of circles, circles bound and circles spoken. Hear me know as I yield up my life to you. Feel that great rush of wind fill your lungs. See the light come flooding in. Smell the blood. Smell the life. Smell the fire, light in the dark.

I am born, it's happened to me several times, first in a hospital. White tiles, green curtains, shiny silver, white enamel, green scrubs the smell of disinfectant, cheap pine scented disinfectant.  There's not much that makes sense left from this birth in me. Just scattered sensations jangling around in the dark. Strong hands grip me. Light wakes me. Air shakes me. Then the next birth comes on.

I am three years old standing on the edge of a soybean field. Standing in the wreck and ruin of an abandoned farmyard. The other fields had neatly knitted up the edges and a barnyard full of rusting appliances and scrapped cars is all that’s left. I am three years old and I am staring at the setting sun as a storm cloud passes in front of it. The sun burns through the clouds like a fiery iris, and I know God. I feel strong hands grip me, light wakes me, and air shakes me. My father picks me up and we run to the house as it starts raining, hard.

Six years later in a distant relatives house I am staring into the glass eye of a pheasant dead and mounted on a shelf. The band of red encircling the dot of black, and over it a glossy sheen. There is a fire crackling somewhere in the room, but I was lost in the depths of the eye. I feel invisible hands grip me; grip my lungs from the inside. I feel God's hands. I am woken by light, by bright red fire light shining from that glossy eye. The air shakes and shivers and I shiver and shake with it. I see the sun burning behind the clouds and the edges of my vision blur with light that may be white tiles as I feel God.

I am twelve sitting in the dark staring into a campfire. My Boy Scout troop is sitting around listening to a story told by our troop leader. I stare into the fire where a knot on a log has not burnt. Deep black charcoal ringed by a burning red rim. As the scout master tells us about a hook scratching on the roof of a car I feel strong hands grip up my spine and grab me by the lungs and I'm in the presence again. Light wakes me. Air shakes me. I see the flash of the sun behind clouds. I see the edges of my vision as I scream myself awake from birth and I see the glossy pheasants eye lit with fire light. Air shakes me, light wakes me, I am gripped by strong hands.

I am fifteen and running on the field with the football in my hands and the pads like the armor of justice around me and I'm running towards Victory and the land of sweet rewards. Running 'til there's fire in my lungs and legs and blood, 'til there's fire in my soul. The hit comes, strong hands, the ground hits me.  Light wakes me, the air shimmers and shakes me and I see the fiery red and bold dark black, and I hear ringing like a finger on glass or high distant rolling bells. I see the eye of a pheasant and the sun behind clouds and a burning knot of pine and a I see a black circle rimmed in red and bright white light.

I am seventeen tall and strong and bold and I am running through the woods with my crossbow, the deer are being driven and flushed this way by my father and my uncle. I see movement to my right, air comes burning into my lungs. I turn to fire and there I see it telescoped by adrenaline: the eye of a deer, blackness rimmed red. I fall to the ground gripped by strong hands. Light wakes me then. Air shakes me.

We are in an ancient desert city it's our third patrol of the week. How the dust and dry mud of these buildings can burn is beyond me. I am a machine gunner on top of a Hummvee. I see movement to my left and I swing the gun around and cycle rounds of thunder and fury and bolts of fear at the movement. We are under fire from all directions. There is swirling smoke there is red wicked flame, there are screams and explosions. I see friends and foes die, cut down before me. Wheat before the scythe. I know these things I hear them. I feel them. I see them. A rocket hits the front of my vehicle and I am thrown by the blast. Even now in this hot violent dusty land, now in the circle of death and ruin, now in the place where none of us know why we are fighting, but we fight until we die and bleed and can struggle no more, even as I lay on the ground stunned by the blast. Shook by it, shaken by it, taken by it. I feel them. I feel strong hands grip me. Light wakes me, air shakes me. I feel God. I am born.