If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Richard Hartwell: Last To Take Flight

Bronze canvas overspreads angular bones,
patchy in places as if small dead leaves
adhere to cheeks, forehead and neck;
within the wrinkled canyons of her face
are told the true myths of her many lives.

There is so little water in the canyons:
            not on her face,
                        not in the land,
                                    none to waste.

After nine decades of intense desert heat
she is used to this, she no longer sweats;
still, there is an almost copper sheen to
her skin, like hard-worked oiled-leather
sold to tourists traveling the asphalt trail.
Selling goods by the side of the road:
            leather goods,
                        leather lasts,
                                    she lasts.

Neck sinews, corded like hemp rope,
coil into the dirty collar of a drab shirt,
black cotton, cinched snug at the waist
with a silver and turquoise belt, color
in a somber sea of secondhand clothes.

She focuses on the twisting asphalt:
            occasional cars,
                        occasional sales,
                                    irregular pay.

From beneath the shirt, a drooping skirt
greets the mounting leather moccasins;
outlaw black hat – low crowned, wide
brimmed, ancient, functional, like her –
borne by two gray braids, one on a side.

Twisting braids, neck, skin:
            framing her face,
                        framing her culture,
                                    heritage pictured.

Surroundings rain-bowed in dry dun hues,
only soft-gray dusty-drab green for relief;
contours of the pan, arroyos and road are
broken by majestic mesas, or low shrubs
and dead yucca, seen askance not directly.

Casual breaks in the southern horizon,
            not oriental,
                        not occidental,
                                    merely accidental.

Above her extends a vault of blue so startling white at mid-day as to sear the eyes until only black stars dance on the retina. No relief except in the shade, except there is precious little shade and will be no shade until much later when the back rampart of the mesa will see a shadow extend from the base running fast as the setting sun toward the shimmering eastern horizon.

Only then will the ancient one, named Sorrows in the Stream so many years ago but known now only as Old Woman, rise from beside the roadside stand, place her Indian Artifacts and Curios for Sale sign under the low split-wood table, and amble slowly to the next shadow, relief, and the perilous climb, made numbly, to the top of the mesa.

It is not that her body has given out, at least not completely, or that her mind has given up, it is that her nature can no longer contain the colors of her memory and the sunburst of her soul.

She knows this, every day, and today, earlier, had prayed that no tourists would stop to barter and bluster nor would any sheriff, from on or off the reservation, stop to hassle her about permits or to rage about her son. None had, tourist or cop, and she only had to steel herself against the intrusion of passing cars seven times during the day.

She didn’t really need the occasional money to live, not that she would turn it down, but had all she needed from the land and her snares, the pool at the base of the mesa, and in the hut above. She wouldn’t turn the money down; she would use it to drink and use it to get drunk and use it to try to forget. It was good that she rarely made any sales. It was very good that she made no sales today. Since she last had gotten drunk it had been . . . how many days? She can’t remember, which she takes as a good also.

Sorrows in the Stream finds the small pool at the base of the mesa nearly full and takes the gourd from off her shoulder, sinking it into the tepid depth beneath the spring’s outcropping. This is the water source, life itself, she shares with so many others: prey and predators, mammals and reptiles, birds and insects. Almost all of them drink at night as she sleeps above them on top of the mesa. Sometimes when she descends in the early morning she spooks some small piece of fur or feather. Only rarely in the afternoon does she hear the warning stutter of a late rattler. She lives with all of these, is a part of them and the desert.

She picks her way up through the split in the side of the mesa, a split that has been here these many generations. Footholds and handholds have been carved and shaped and enlarged by numberless ancients before her. She adds her miniscule aid to this process without thought, plan, fear, or sight. Her eyes are closed. She knows the niches and knobs so well and climbing up out from the brilliant plain and into the crevasse she knows her shadow-blindness will last until she is almost at the top. She relies on the mesa wall to hold her up rather than trying to see what cannot be seen clearly in shadow.

At the top of the cleft, the edge rounds out to two steps worn from the hard rock. She takes only two or three deep breaths and then sets off to her right to the wood and woven lean-to. Years ago she built this home resting against the crumbling wall abandoned by a previous desert race.

She doesn’t know who they had been, whether related to her own people or not, whether they had been an enemy or not. Occasionally she finds an arrowhead, a flint, shards of pottery – but is not able to identify them – and climbs down the next day and adds the piece to the Indian Artifacts and Curios for Sale.

When younger, a few years back, before her son was sent to jail, she enjoyed making up stories to tell the tourists. There would be always some truth, some truth drawn from her childhood or early marriage, but she would twist and stretch and chew on the stories like a plug of tobacco until they were soft enough to sell to even the most highway-hardened tourist.

Now, when she has to respond to a stopping car and would-be customer, she just grunts and shakes her head, playing at language illiteracy, and only nods and holds out her hand when the price seems right. She no longer cares about dispelling the myth of civilization. For several days now she has had no need to play television Indian.

When she thinks about this play-acting – which she doesn’t do often, but is doing tonight as she goes about her few chores in and around her hut on top of the mesa, on top of her world – when she thinks about this pose of the stoic Indian woman, she tries on all the cultural garments, the mental trappings, she has borrowed from tourists’ expectations. She tumbles them over, throwing on one after another: Indian, squaw, Native American, indigenous person, even redskin and savage. Each and all fit her, or one part of her or another, but she eschews them all. For her, there is only one raiment that fits. She is One, One of the People. Not people, but People. She knows this from her uncle and from her grandfather before him. She wears no mantle from her long-gone husband and not from her son.

She finishes this reverie and sees that all tasks are completed, in much the same manner as she climbs the mesa. She sits on the low stool outside the blanket door and stares west where the sun has finally dropped behind the horizon. The surrounding mesas are now various shades of purple and the shell of the sky is washed in streams of yellows, oranges, reds, and then into similar shades of purples as the mesas had been.

With the passage of time and the sun gone and the moon not yet appeared, the sky above has become a speckled black felt like a jeweler’s display of turquoise. The other mesas have faded to indistinct shadows outlined by starlight alone. To the west and southwest runs the great loop of highway, almost a noose thrown into the reservation.

If she looked down, a lonely car, lights on high beam, might be seen once or twice each night. Old Woman no longer looks down. Rather, this One of the People, lies down on one of her blankets and starts naming the animals above: Two Snakes, Dog Who Talks, Running Chicken, Rabbit, and so many others.

When she was very, very young she went to the school on the reservation. She learned about others in the sky that she could not see. Others, not of the People, had different names for their pictures in the sky. Along with most else from the school, she thought that had been a lie, too. After two or so years, she stopped going.

It does not matter. Nothing matters that is left behind. She knows these pictures. She takes pleasure in their flight across the sky. She can name them all. Her mind flies easily to this. But this night Sorrows in the Stream does not finish the naming. Black felt fades to blue. Animals wheel overhead, unseen, unnamed, finally chased over the horizon by dawn. Western shadows beneath the mesas shorten to meet day. At the base of the mesa, fur and scales and feathers are left undisturbed at the spring. Tears from the mesa continue to collect.

The first car of the day passes the Indian Artifacts and Curios for Sale without sign, without notice.

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Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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