“A good story is the filament of consciousness, the wick of the soul; it is the fragrance of butterscotch, the sudden familiarity of a desert toad.” - Gabriel Abdallah
I stood on the precipice, a soft glow of magenta in the rocks underneath my feet. It was a small plateau, high in the air at the corner of a side canyon along the Rio Grande Gorge. A violet green swallow sailed continuously in wide circles around me, its wings stiff like the sails of a ship. I could sense the stillness and rigor of its fat torpedo of a body, and the sudden shudder of movement as it broke from its natural elegance to pursue an insect. Hunger.
I shook my head and peered down to the canyon below. A friend had called me here, her own wings fluttering like those of a red-tailed hawk. Or were they owls? I pretended not to remember. Off to the east, a little ways up the side canyon, a small pool of sand attracted my attention, as it had once before. “Pema,” I thought, “I have to bring Pema here.” Then, as if hardly noticing it consciously, my eyes scanned the rocky ledges, the patterns of sand and sage growth, and slowly resettled on the surface…wait, was that a pool of water?
The unmistakable jade green of algal waters, couched about a hundred feet down from where I stood, was undeniable. Perched at the very edge of a yet much taller cliff than my own, the pool of water would have been the final resting point for rain and runoff as it slipped through the side canyon after a heavy storm. The swallow, careening by, was now followed by a partner whose identical coat of green and violet purple were indistinguishable to my eye. I had once seen hundreds of these creatures, twisting and cavorting over the troubled surface of the river, scrambling after a cloud of insects I could not see. Up and down the river, as far as I could see, an entire summer’s worth of swallows in one magical hour, identical in their purple-green pajamas, soaring in the liquid of my own breath.
Now there were just two, and as I followed their tangential movements near the edge of that lower precipice, I asked myself, “Had they gone down to the water?” There were people here once, I knew, wild souls from America’s suburban landscapes who had come to find themselves. My eyes imagined their careful steps leading back up the canyon, perhaps coming to rest on that pool of sand. The surface, choppy and broken, had clearly been trampled by footsteps. As my friend had danced with the birds here on the ledge, the others had descended to the depths below. “I need to bring Pema here,” I thought.
“Dad,” Pema asked, “can we get this one?” She had a small candle in her hand, whose glass tumbler had an image of Mary holding baby Jesus. Jesus, with remarkable dexterity for such an infant, held his hand up in a two-fingered blessing. Someone, presumably the candle maker herself, had glued several plastic sequins and baubles to the image, which added a three-dimensional sparkle, a plastic mysterium. “Perfect,” I said, “Mama will love it.”
“Can I hold it?” Pema asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, turning our cart toward the produce aisle, but not before noticing an unsightly plum-colored candle. It lacked the gems and baubles of the other, but its name, smeared across the gold tinfoil of the wrapper, jumped out at me: Dragon’s Blood. It was three days before mother’s day.
Two weeks prior, I sat along the edge of the Rio Grande, far from home, but in a spot that wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. A friend had thrown the leftover remnants of a burrito into the river, a spontaneous offering to the spirits of that place. I had finished mine on the road. The river was muddy brown, swollen from spring melt, and the increasingly fervent tosses of my friend were not sacred enough to escape the eddies that traveled the shoreline. As we stood there, watching soggy pieces of tortilla circle pitifully around our toes, it started to sprinkle. I looked up at the sun, shocked to feel raindrops just then. I turned to my companion with wide eyes. Maybe the burrito had worked after all. I removed my hat, having heard a story years ago about Muhammad. Whenever it rained, I was told, the prophet would take his hat off to receive the blessing of God’s water directly on his skin. Muhammad, like me, had lived in a desert.
As I scrambled down the boulders, careful not to step on a cactus, I watched the swallow, still circling the air before the promontory. She was all grace. I crawled out of my eyes, into the fluidity of that bird, that sky, reminded, as I stepped awkwardly amongst unsteady rocks, that I was once a liquid creature myself, curled amongst the comforting eddy of my mother’s womb. Like those soft tortillas, she had kept me from the raging peculiarities of a muddied river. Apparently, I even had a tail.
Arriving at the pool of sand, I saw that the footsteps were not human after all. Other wild souls had come here, I guessed, maybe deer. But out here, clutched against the vertical ledges of the gorge, I suspected big horned sheep, whose sure feet and nautilus horns more frequently inhabit this landscape. I scanned the surroundings for anything out of the ordinary, or, as it may have been, for all the ordinariness the little space could contain. I’m like a thief with eyes. But I’m remorseful too. To the north and south, a steep, but navigable slope led up and out of the small cleft of the side canyon, and to the east, the way I would eventually exit, lay a small cliff of gray stone like a bank vault. Twenty feet high, it formed an abrupt end to the sandbox now at my feet, except, with its tiny crevices and cracks, my eyes immediately sensed it was navigable. Turning back to the west, where the swallows still played, I set my intentions on that small pool of water.
“Dada?” Pema asked.
“Can you write, ‘We love you. Pema and Joe’?” Pema pushed the paper towards me, a sheet of paper folded in half lengthwise, so that it was tall and skinny. We had spent the last half hour drawing pictures and writing messages on our improvised Mother’s Day card. “That’s me and Mama,” Pema had told me, pointing to two people with long, sticklike fingers protruding from round orbits which resembled palms. Each had a long, colorful dress and long hair. “And that’s you,” Pema said, pointing this time to a somewhat shorter person with the familiar dress and hands. “He has scraggly hair.”
On the other side, which Pema had neatly divided in half with a straight line, she had drawn a second picture of Pema and Mama, while on the other half I had drawn, rather pleased with myself, a goat. The middle of the card had two “monsters,” above which Pema had handwritten numerous scribbles that resembled cursive. She translated, slowly and with evident pauses at each period, “These are words. I wrote them. Anyway. These are monsters. But they’re not scary. Because. That’s what I wanted to do.” She ended the final sentence with an inflection and a laugh, as if I might think monsters weren’t a good fit for a Mother’s Day card.
“Okay, pup,” I said. Using a blue-green pencil, I wrote, “We love you. Pema and Joe,” above the picture of she and Mama, and the goat.
“Then,” Pema continued, “Say, ‘We have special things for you. But we can’t tell you what they are. We love you. Except, they’re food.’”
“Okay,” I said, writing down her words carefully.
“We love you. Pema and Joe,” she said again, and again I wrote it down.
My mother died on April 17th, 1981, two months after my first birthday. She was pregnant with her fifth child. I have no conscious memory of it, but I know facts. She had a “multi-focal myocardial infarction.” Her heart suddenly stopped working. I cannot picture her face, or any part of her body. I have never been able to, but I have a dreamlike memory of my brother, who was two and a half at the time, telling me that when she died her face fell into a bowl of yoghurt. I picture the three of us in our old dining room, my father away at work, my sisters, who were ten years older, at school. The room is brightly lit through the large front window, and my brother sits on her lap. My mother, seated at the butcher block table, has one arm around him and the other hand on a spoon. Strangely, I have the sense that I am standing on the floor, looking up at them from some distance. One minute we’re all there sharing a completely innocuous and lovely moment, and the next she is face down in yoghurt. I can feel the light coming in the window. My brother and I never say a word. We never respond.
This is surely not how it happened, but whenever I think of that particular moment this is what I recall. Apocryphal as it must be, it is the only memory I have of her. Three years later, when my dad remarried, I have a distinct memory of the two of them, the woman I’ve always known as my mom, and my dad, leaving the reception in a helicopter. I can say for certain that that never happened, and yet, I can still picture the way the tables were set, dancing with my aunts and uncles, and the big cake. Everyone was so joyful. Eventually, as the evening wore on, still dressed head to toe, the two of them walked out of our church social hall, past the boys bathroom I would use hundreds of times as a child, and down the hall where my brother, years later, as president of the student council in eighth grade, would successfully petition to locate a Coke machine, the school’s first and only. Passing out the heavy wooden doors, my parents walked some distance on the cracked blacktop and, amidst the swirling blades, stepped into the open rear door of the helicopter. We all stood there, shouting and waving, while the two of them waved back.
By the time I was ten years old, all of my mom’s sisters, my birth mother that is, had died of sudden heart failure. Except one, my aunt Lori. My sister Lori, her namesake, died in 2010. I didn’t even attend her funeral.
“Dada look!” Pema shouted from the back seat. It was early morning and we were driving to meet Silke and the Earth Children for a school day. Instinctively, without slowing down, I turned my head to the side of the road. Beyond the fence, in a green pasture, lay what appeared to be a dead horse. The dappled gray body lay on its side, its neck limp and awkward. I would have thought nothing of it, horses do occasionally lie down, but what filled me with uncertain horror and an awful sense of peace was the fact that three other horses stood sentinel nearby. Spread evenly at a distance, each facing sideways, they surrounding their dead companion in a circle. There was no movement.
Shortly after my mother died, I went to live with my aunt Marge. Aunt Marge and Uncle Jim, who were not relatives, but close family friends, lived with their three daughters in a duplex a few blocks from my dad’s house. Soon after I arrived, Aunt Marge had her fourth child. Andy would be my constant playmate in childhood. My brother had gone to live with my Aunt Connie, my dad’s sister, who had one girl my age and soon gave birth to a second. The four of us, cousins, grew up like best friends. My sisters, who had been the product of my mother’s first marriage and would have been about ten and fourteen at the time, went to live with their father. I hardly ever saw them again. I have no sense of how much time this all took, but at fourteen months old I had lost not only my mother, but my dad, my brother and two sisters. It went on like that for two years or so while my dad studied law during the day and worked at the bus station at night. Finally, remarrying with the decidedly bold gesture of a helicopter, my family reunited, now regathered as a small nuclear family of four.
It took about half an hour to get ready. Megan, who had always been a scrappy hundred pounds, now, at thirty-six weeks pregnant, weighed in at a hundred sixty-five. It was early January, just past the new year. Donning elastic pants with the legs rolled way up, a huge wool sweater, lambskin hat, gloves and scarf, we were about to head up to the kitchen. Our small house was comfortable and warm, but we had no water or kitchen. We lived in a community, a beautiful location on the side of a rural mountain, but one whose winters were fierce. Tying Megan’s boots while she sat in a chair, I slipped on her Yak Traks, a sort of tire chain for her shoes, handed her the two walking poles, and we set off.
The trip was only a few hundred yards, but it was a fairly steep climb. The entire landscape was buried under several feet of snow, and the path, which we traveled several times a day like this, could be slick and icy. Megan, lumbering with a body almost twice her normal size, slowly made her way up the hill. Pema, girdled inside, would have only felt the soft undulations as Megan rocked, slowly and carefully, from one foot to the other.
Pema and I were in a hurry, so we did not linger for the dead horse. It passed out of view behind a row of elm trees, along with its sentinel cousins, as quickly as it had appeared. Ten minutes later we were in the parking lot, waiting for our carpool, when we got a message. Silke was at the gas station. The car she had borrowed, with extra seats for the field trip, had suddenly died at the gas station. “Do you have jumper cables?” she asked. I did.
With three children piled in my own backseat, I quickly informed two other parents who had recently arrived, and we pulled, en masse, out of the parking lot. The gas station was nearby, and as I maneuvered under the metal canopy of the Conoco station, so as to be face first, engine to engine, I could see the other parents circling round Silke like a wagon train.
“Are the lights coming on?” The owner of the car, one of the children’s parents, had gotten the distress call and come to check it out. “One of ‘em,” I shouted over the din of the congested gas station. Nearby, cars sped by at fifty miles an hour on their way to work. Others pulled off, paused, then skirted the heap of cars piled around the two pumps out front. “Let’s try to jump it anyway,” I offered, not sure of what else to do. I hooked up the cables, but nothing happened.
“You’ve got to hit the starter,” another woman suggested, the parent of one of the children who now sat patiently in the rear of the van. “Do you know that trick?” I was skeptical as she went to her car to retrieve some tools. I wouldn’t want someone banging around my car. Then I looked at the kids piled in the back, clearly enjoying the spectacle. The woman returned with a hammer and a small crowbar. “It has to be metal,” she said, peering under the hood for the starter.
Years ago, before Pema was born, well before Megan and I had gotten married or even conceived of having a child, we took a long hike near a remote lake on a sunny, but blustery day. It was Megan’s birthday. We were both grad students, studying philosophy, and we spent many days wandering the empty austerity of New Mexico’s landscapes, debating and discovering our inner dreams. On this particular day, after fumbling down a cactus-covered slope in flip flops, we came to rest under a great big cottonwood tree near the shoreline of a small river. It was so empty and quiet, save for the occasional gusts of wind. Megan arranged a few photographs and set a candle into the sand. After sharing some memories and saying a few prayers, she lit the candle, cupping it with her hand to shelter it from the wind. It burned solidly for a few seconds as she took her hand away, and continued to express herself. It was a lovely day. As the wind circled our modest enclave, the candle inevitably began to sputter. We looked at each other and shrugged. Finally, the candle blew out. I watched a small trail of smoke waft into the air. “Oh well,” we seemed to say, looking at each other warmly. You can’t control everything. Then I glanced back down. The candle was relit.
I grew up with my mom and dad and brother in the same house I had lived in with my birth mother and two sisters. Now, it was just the four of us. Thirty years later, when Megan and I visited my family, I took her down the old street. I was shocked at how shabby our little house looked. All the siding had been torn off and the white paint on the porch was peeling wildly. The maple tree out front was gone. Still, there was the big window that opened out from the dining room. My mother was hardly older than I was as I stood there, peering in. I had eaten countless meals in that room, including the “dirt” my mom made once for my birthday, somehow mixing Oreos and other things into a crude slop that, sweet like candy, resembled the stuff of the earth. She had put it in a bowl and stuck a bouquet of plastic flowers on top. Two gummy worms climbed up from the soil and hung limp over the edge.
“Turn the key!” she shouted, giving a light tap on the crowbar. The car instantly turned over. I looked up, smitten with reality.
Two months ago, I sat with a friend along the Rio Grande. Like Megan, she had arranged a pile of photos, a few sacred objects, and was saying a few words about the men and women in her life. We had no candle, but she had lit a small piece of charcoal and reached into a small bag and placed a dark maroon crust of something on top. I looked at the bag, which read Dragon’s Blood Resin. “What is it?” I had asked.
“I don’t know.”
As it heated up, the crusty resin morphed into a thick, blood-black slurry that heaved and puffed with sickening air bubbles. It released a perfume that was, let’s say, unpleasant. “What kind of incense is this?” I said, pretending not to love it’s awful, burnt tire smell.
Halfway up the rock wall, I felt around for the final handhold I would need to climb up and over the bank-like vault of the canyon. HI had made my way to the small green pool at the edge of the cliff, but I still had a long day ahead of me. The pool, which had sat in a small depression at the edge of the cliff, held not more than ten gallons of water. The violet green swallows had circled one last time and curved their way around a bend, and far below, the raging waters of the Rio Grande drained by. Megan and I separated two years ago, when Pema was three years old. Throughout the course of our relationship, and ultimately our marriage, we had often recalled that moment down at the lake. Neither of us really believed in miracles. Still, that candle. As I had turned to leave, gearing myself up for the climb, I reached down to wet my hands and face, and that’s when I noticed. Tadpoles.