Monday, February 17, 2014

A Graveyard in the Sierra

The one graveyard I will know.
The light of dreams and fierce shadows of nightmares
that passed through the nights of these minds: I think
of that one river I’ll know, the North Yuba, of water-logged leaves
turning over and shifting in the shadows of stones--
for one instant sharply seen through current’s surface.

Always the North Yuba River
that made this canyon, but only for a time: our minds.

We built a wall one August
at the bottom of the hill that is this graveyard.
My father had hurt his foot two weeks before.
Now he limped and smoldered,
griped with deep bruising and having to favor it.
I watched my step.

Heaped in dry dirt,
granite seemed desperate for a mortar-line,
a map of its riving. One night I dreamed
the mortar-line was a foot wide in places;
granite and quartz went to powder like dried mud,
and old men from Sierra City asked, What went wrong?
What have you done?

In that dream, the crumbling, un-crafted wall
was order I’d failed to bring. Now the North Wind
in my dream was free to scream.

In summer, swallows in the evening
circle over a pond in a pasture, dive and dip for insects,
missing, missing, curving up again, turning,
diving. The mind
in an evening of awareness,
curving out over its topography,
desires to recognize a history;
it dreams of a sudden pattern
on the surface of a pond like the face
of Christ Christians dream of.
We give ourselves over to order in daylight
only to have light of dreams
and fierce shadows of nightmares
pass through our sleeping minds
like scraping leaves--
the chaotic heart
pounding in a dark bedroom, frightened
by an old men’s questions.

The county is running out of land for graves.
It has ten thousand acres of timberland,
but the Dead are not a major voting bloc.
So my father thought of leaving niches
in the wall for urns. And when any of the old boys
(at most ten years from being sealed up in the wall
themselves) would wander up the hill to check our progress,
he'd tell them we were putting "ash-holes" in
and laugh harder than they would
and wink at me, reaching in his shirt pocket
for a can of snoose.
I'd nail together box-like forms
of plywood, wrap them in plastic, and grease them
so we could remove them easily later on.
My father built the wall around them,
creating what I thought of then as small formal caves,
like the cliff houses of the Anasazi.

Mixing mortar, sometimes I thought of all the caskets
crowded underground not ten feet from me
and thought, "What the hell am I working for?"
Or it would be just god-awful hot,
and I'd forget about the caskets and think,
"What the hell am I working for?" For money, of course.

Winter. The wall is long since finished, now snowed on.
His foot, healed. We drive up to the graveyard
one Saturday to bolt a brass American Legion plaque
over one of niches.
A typewritten note taped to the Post Office glass
says the ashes of the former storekeeper will be interred
next week in a brief ceremony. The “o” of these words
is gray at the center from worn type.
We unbolt the wooden cover:

A scorpion dances stiffly on the floor
of his cold cave, is curved up viciously,
a smoldering summer image in the mouth of winter.
He shuffles sideways in darkness,
funny and dangerous like a Vaudevillian psychopath.
We bolt the plaque to cold granite.
Snowflakes lodge in the hair on our hands.
We both think of the scorpion
locked in the wall of our making:

"That'll fix the son-of-a-bitch," my father says.
The old fireman who lives across the road
has left for the winter, the windows
of his white house shuttered.

In the hills, coyotes gnaw deer carcasses.
A howl of absence issues from snowed-over meadows,
from carcasses and mine tunnels in the hills,
from the canyon of the North Yuba.

We drive down the slushy road
that was white-hot in August
through Sierra City, empty in Winter,
and head out along Highway 49 toward the house;
we don't think not so much of the dead or the marvelous un-interred light
of their unrecorded dreams, but rather of black-iced asphalt
and of a red scorpion we sealed up in our wall
with childish delight.

Hans Ostrom 1980/2014
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