The Grape Arbor
A little girl wakes outside
on a woven polypropylene chaise – yellow
everywhere. In the air,
she tastes baked loam. Beyond
a wide-leafed vine lit with black grapes,
dust-blued, the sky
holds an idea just out of reach.
She looks and looks until she feels everything
turn over, feels herself fall
into the infinite day.
Two young conquerors
with braided hair
caper in the narrow yard.
One rides in circles, one
in a cut-open cardboard box
accepts the toll. One conceals
herself amid the star jasmine,
one seeks. One emerges
squirming off spiders, smelling
like vernal midnight. One
mounts a board, legs astraddle
the rope drilled through it.
One pulleys the rope, hoists
the swing into the white
branches. Okay, one says,
let me down. Please.
What’s the secret word.
What’s the secret word.
Bird of Paradise
Of the flowers in the narrow yard –
snapdragons with soft mouths
you could guppy open between finger
yarrow, sea holly,
Japanese blood grass,
reticent peonies picked open by ants –
the Bird of Paradise was her favorite
because it was not beautiful.
Not, like aster, flocked. Nor
aglow with magenta bulbs
It had none of the helixing wisteria’s
clusters of tinkling purple bells.
It seemed to strain
amid the bright clamor, orange
and indigo comb scissored open.
Sometimes she fingered the tapering
green beak, lithe neck, and thought
if proud ever looked like anything,
it had to be this.
The last time she broke her arm –
overreaching, sweaty, her grip slicked
off the monkey bars –
she landed heart-first
mouth full of tanbark
mulched throughout the playground.
Sun-flavored redwood. Lumberdust
on the tongue
The wind knocked out of you,
a hand making circles on her back
as she gulped for air. Years later,
that moment would bubble up
from the deep aquifer of memory –
upon receiving awful news.
She’d recall the arm’s
wrong, wrong angle
the discordant loveliness of the day
being asked – 1 through 10 –
how much does it hurt
she had nothing to compare it to.
Greased Melon Day
You’re a people person,
her mother said
in the voice people use
Blue bathing suit
with a blue ruffle.
The kids in the pool
were trying to get the water-
melon slicked with
water polo goals.
Diving board end.
Baby pool end.
Go, go play, her mom said.
The kids (all squawk & bleat)
were nice enough but
the greased melon
kept getting and getting
away. End of the day,
she sat in a bath
and cried, watching
slight tears roll
off her oil-glazed arms.
Bottle Brush Bees
The red-blossomed bush
furred out in the corner
of the narrow yard sizzles
with bees, bristled
cylindrical flowers tipped
with yellow pollen lure
their fuzzy thieves. Once
or maybe twice a month
barefoot she or her sister
might find one, lightning
in the grass; they
devised a whole lexicon
for sting – bee-branded,
needled, honey-rung –
despite all their words
what she’ll remember is
not how it feels to be stung,
but their constant song.
All over the news – bring in
cats, dismantle doghouses,
chicken hutches. Backyard woodpiles
to be avoided, crawlspaces swept
before entering. A threat
called in – illegal pet, most poisonous
snake in the world, gone rogue.
Anti-venom helicoptered in,
blue glow of nightly science
paling all faces. For weeks
nobody felt safe. Who walked
to school was carpooled, under-
run dogs tremble-stretched
on rugs. Announcement:
If it wasn’t a hoax, now
there have been enough
slitherless searches, days un-
spotted, successive nights of frost-
crunched lawns. Conclusion:
the snake – if there was a snake –
is gone. The ecstasy of scare,
collective held breath spent,
like balloons cold-shriveled
in a winter room, and fear,
a promise unfulfilled –
worse only than being chased
by real danger: seduced by the lie.
Silence in the narrow yard. All fall
they could have been outside.
The sisters’ itched-open chicken pox,
so many cigarette burns –
That’s it, their mother said, snapping
a blanket wide in the narrow yard,
stripping both her daughters
Eden-raw. I swear, I’ll duct-tape
mittens to your hands – her mother
knew, in mere minutes, sun
would ease their little bodies clenched
in stress. She watched a blue-black
beetle clamber up a stem. She plucked
a silver leaf off at its joint –
thick, furred Lamb’s Ear. She petted
her sister with its downy pelt.
My turn, said her sister, and she felt
an instinct yawn a crack into its shell -
a sense that to love well, first
one might have to get a whiff of hell.
Beside the highway out of town, a massive cement statue of Padre Junípero Serra kneels, gesturing towards the sea. Who was he, she asks through her reflection in the car window. Her father at the wheel replies, The one who built the missions. You had that field trip – she remembers. Ronald Stamper dared her to say the f-word
and she did, very quietly. And felt wretched. And nobody heard but God. Later, on the bus, Ronald refused the strawberry Mentos he’d promised. No, he said. If no-one notices, it doesn’t count. And even then, she knew that was f-ed up. Pulling in the drive, her father’s car gets a hair too close to the juniper hedge. She hears the branches whine against the door. Her father turns, grins, Maybe just don’t mention that to Mom? But first thing that he says inside: I scraped that f-ing juniper again, tousling his curious daughter’s hair.
On the walk to school,
the Screaming House, blade-leaved
oleander menacing through the chainlink fence.
They heard but never saw who howled
wordless, keened. It seemed all day –
Steer clear of there, her mother said. But gloom
beguiles certain minds. And why,
she wondered, wouldn’t someone
suffering thus just walk out, harvest –
if not the light – the toxic shrub
that hemmed the fetid place. Still there,
hunched in piney darkness, curtains drawn,
oleander bushes in bloom. Last time,
she stood and stood and all she heard -
two daytime owls, lowing in accord.
They were in one of many droughts –
if it’s yellow let it mellow, shower with a friend –
slogans flourished. The sisters
bucketed out their bathwater
to ransom the narrow yard.
At one end of its crescent, their mother’s roses –
sunburn pink, or white and veined
like a bloodshot eye, some the vivid red
of blood in new panties, others
the dark claret of wound.
You water the soil, not the blooms,
or risk black rash spreading
amid their fleshy petals. She thought
of this as she drained gray suds
delicately onto the roots of a bush
whose fragrant gills flamed orange
as the brushfire thrashing
in the nearby foothills, whose smoke
ghosted the summer wind.
When she thinks of where she comes from. Fog. Maseca. Estuary birds. Carolina Duarte made fun of her homemade clothes. The seventh banana slug on the trail, clinging to an exposed root. Like paint slip. The twelfth. A lemon tree in the narrow yard. In the narrow yard, dill. Carrots. Sand. Waking one night after bedtime. Her mother cried, Because we don’t have any goddam money. Her father, low voiced. The smell of granite. The dog breathing slow in her little sleep. The redwoods, softest bark. Soft as rust. Silhouette-colored leaves. Taller than buildings. Cathedral-columned. So ancient they have names. So ancient, the origins of their names are a mystery. The shiny black seam where fire tongued the tree. The square carved out of a trunk so a road could tunnel through. Bower. Timber. And all those tiny cones that need the fire. It breathes a spell on them. They split open.