I walked the land I grew up on today. My aunt Alice, my dad’s oldest sister and the matriarch of the family now, lead the way with her ceaseless wonder, showing me the new heron rookery, crossing the precarious beaver dam without hesitation, glowing about how the water didn’t get into her boots.
My father built this crooked little house by a creek with his brothers and some rugged hippie friends who understood tape measures and figured out the sawmill. It’s owned now by a tall, gentle, bird-loving guy named Bruce who hung that star there, who watches the woodpeckers make tiny holes in the siding that I know he’ll fix one day, who feeds the possum that lives under the barn where my dad used to rehearse with his band; Bruce tells me possums don’t get rabies because their body temperature is so low, and they eat the ticks, so they’re nice to have around. He and his girlfriend, wearing a big smile and a flannel over a GIRLS WILL SAVE THE WORLD t-shirt, invited me to walk around inside, (which I’ll do one day, when we’re not six feet apart in the middle of a pandemic.)
I remember the story my mom told me
about being eight months pregnant on her back under this house
stapling insulation, that big belly full of me butting up
against the underside of what would become the floors
where I learned to walk. Bruce gets it, I think:
A house that you build yourself is this square that lives inside you,
the angles of which you divvy up in your dreams forever—
a nagging problem (the digging deeper of ditches
in the pouring rain so water won’t cover the tiles),
a fantastical and ever-shrinking geometry of rooms,
and if there was a forest around that square
with paths your own feet wore
and a winding stream you fished with your own pole
and watched your young children splash around in,
learning the treacherous shape of rocks
invisible under a fast-moving current,
then there is a part of you in the chickadees’ song every spring,
pungent as a fresh head of skunkweed crushed underfoot,
sweet as the fat blueberries on the bushes you planted yourself
that will decorate someone else's summer salad.
This land was where a life began, all idealism and sweat,
keg beer and a kiddie pool, an upright piano tucked
behind the stairs where your little girl learned
to use her big voice and play chords with a one-trick-pony left hand,
initials carved inside closets, height marks hashed into a door frame,
a yard pocked with Barbie pond holes
and impulsive decisions to dig to China
or at least to the molten center of the earth
to see if we’d melt or burn.
Burls in ironwood where the elves bunked down,
three-inch nails holding two-by-fours hostage
to lightning-split stumps from forts started on a whim
and never finished.
Life bursts forth,
fiddlehead to fern,
sun-kissed to brown-tipped,
leafless and exhausted,
a porous feather sinking back into the earth,
buried in months of deep snow...
Only to shoot up again!—
in hairy, fisty little swirls of Irish red
when the robins have returned, the cycle picking up pace,
the thumping bass of a grouse nearby,
orgies of salamanders in shallow pools,
pollen-thick beams of light through craggy apple branches,
and the purple flowers of myrtle
littered like confetti all over the floor.
New tenants, same lease.
Is this the invitation god meant to send
when she licked the stamp?
Of course it is. I am here again,
walking the rim with Alice—
right where she was a few years back
when she ran into my childhood friend,
who overdosed two weeks later.
“He was high then, I’m pretty sure,” she said.
“He talked a mile a minute
and told me all these stories,
one about meeting you and Kylee at dawn,
and she cut her arm on the barbed wire?”
Seven stitches, and we were grounded for a week,
and all the other secrets of the land,
living here still in the space between trees,
between rocks in the creek,
in the sticky Balm of Gilead buds,
the mosses and mushrooms,
the music of birds and water.
My dad said that once,
wrote it into a song…
One note bleeds into the next,
a continuum through genes,
both denim and root.
Before I left today, under the brilliant sun,
Alice hopped on the shoulders of her shovel and dug up some bulbs for me:
lilies we labeled Rust, Creamsicle, Burgundy, and Yellow Ruffle.
I don’t know where to put them out here, in my weedy green canvas
where no one before me has tamed a thing,
but I love thinking about some woman,
years and years after I’m dead,
beating an egg in her kitchen
as she looks over explosions of midsummer lilies
from bulbs some version of me pushed into the soil—
if she smiles, I was here. Still am.
Bruce’s future imaginary son, not knowing,
sets a trap for the possums under the barn,
but they just steal the cat food and escape
into the big black night every time,
living only now,
between earth and sky,
tails curled like new ferns,
a history of mischief and hard times
stuck in their crooked, smiling mouths.