Monday, March 17, 2014

Wanderings: Notes from a Journal

originally published in The Rio Grande Review

Today I saw a coyote on the side of the road, rotting in a posture of sleep and supplication. Coyotes litter this road. Sometimes their bodies twist across the yellow dashes; sometimes they lie on the shoulder, their paws facing the cars that ruffle their coats with artificial wind. I find these, the ones who reach out to me from death, most compelling.

I think of my son, Marshall, how he reached out to me this morning from his room at school, placed his arms around my neck and squeezed too tight. The kiss he blew lingers on my cheek. I told him I would keep it all day. Soon, I will not think of him. I will think only of school, my work—my life. Now the coyotes reach out and remind me of my son.

Today, a turkey buzzard, redheaded and broad, started up from the side of the road and darkened my windshield. I hadn’t been paying attention. I only noticed him as he blocked my vision, sent a chill over my car with his ascending shadow. For an instant, all I could see was the unexpected blue-black feathers and the curled fingers. Then he was gone. After his darkness, the bright sun shocked my eyes. “One is for bad news,” I think to myself.

Dread overtakes me so easily. What bad magic did the buzzard cast on my car? Will something happen, dire and unpredictable, to me or Tony, my husband, or Marshall? I run through images of life without them, sadness, and relief. When I get home I will kiss my son in his sleep, feel his long breath against my cheek, erase all ambivalence.

As I drive to school in the mornings, the sun comes up in the east, spreading its honey fingers over the smooth tops of the mountains and then bursting into blinding light, held between the peaks like a golden apple or a gold wrought cup.

At night, as I drive home, it sets in the west, its honey spun into cotton candy, saltwater taffy. The light at night lingers behind the Organ Mountains until long after the stars have begun to stare back at me.

Driving home at night, watching the sky fade, I want to stop, walk away from the road, head toward the fading light out here where the cars go by so fast they might not see me walking away from my car alone into imagined freedom.

A hawk lives on the side of the road, halfway between Alamogordo and El Paso. If I am driving during daylight, most days, she sweeps across the road directly in front of my car, coming from the east, as if she’s mistaken me for prey. I’m always surprised to see the shadow of her wings on the tarmac ahead of me. Her read feathers, thick as butter knives, cut my drive smoothly in two. I mean to look for her perch, but she alludes me by flying across my path.

Last night, Tony drove Marshall and me home from the airport in El Paso where we picked him up from a business trip. Marshall and I were resting, eyes closed, when Tony braked and swerved.

I sat up in time to see a coyote staring, his body illuminated from behind by the lights of another car. After an accusatory glance, he broke his gaze and set off towards the west. Marshall asked what happened.

“Coyote in the road,” I said.

Pointing out the window on his side of the car he said, “Look Mom, it’s still there, racing us.” The headlights reflecting onto the buffalo grass on the side of the road made a small coyote brightness in the night outside the car. It looked as if the coyote were striding next to us—chaos following us home.

Once, when I was a teenager, my brother walked in the door carrying a beautiful German shepherd with black, gray, and white markings. The huge dog hung limp in his arms. He said, “It committed suicide. It wanted to die.” My brother never cried. But he did as he explained that as h was driving down a narrow street a beautiful dog appeared far ahead of him in the road. He slowed, but the thought the dog saw him. As he reached the dog, it jumped in front of the car. Eddie and I dug a hole in the backyard and buried the dog. Three years later, after Eddie hung himself and I buried him, I thought of that dog, Eddie’s familiar, a suicide waiting for the right opportunity, the perfect circumstances, and boom, it’s done.
Now I think of this coyote, my familiar, its impulse to wander and survive equally strong.

Tumbleweeds gather against the fences to the south of the Texas/New Mexico state line. Some look charred, but most look merely gray, the color of sick old men. The get stuck together somehow. But them time they make it to the barbed fence twenty feet from the road, their spindly branches have formed a unified front against my wishes to capture one and carry it home.They look like the roofs of the tumbleweed forts my brother made in the desert.

When I was a little girl, before my parents divorced, we lived in this same landscape. Instead of tree houses, my brother and his friends built tumbleweed forts. Burrowing like prairie dogs they made a hole in the desert sand. Above their burrow, they formed a roof of tumbleweeds stuck together like Velcro. They never let me play with them, so I would scoop the sand with my smaller hands, gather tumbleweeds, and create my own small fort.

I don’t know if the creatures illuminated by my headlights as the night darkens are bats or sparrows. I imagine they are bats. At Carlsbad, the park rangers said the bats flew this way to reach the Rio Grande. The bats hum out of the large cave and form a long black ribbon through the sky, hunting for bugs.

But the animals I see are alone, moving furtively in the light. What birds would fly at night? And why would bats, those dark lovers, dive into the lights of my car?One day I drove to Carlsbad early in the morning to watch the bats return. I could hear their chirps and the fanning of their wings as they entered the cave. I wonder if the sounds they make are sounds of joy for the return, or sounds of sorrow for the leaving of the night. What sounds do I make as I get closer to home?

Tonight a coyote crossed over the road in front of me, his pads barely touching the cooling tar. He looked like a dancer en pointe, making silent steps across the stage of my vision and fading behind a curtain of whisper grass.

I danced for years when I was a little girl. I loved the inaudible thud of my toe shoes as I moved across the wooden floor. I wanted to dance Giselle and Swan Lake. Then my mother’s friend took me to see the Alvin Ailey dance company. the dancers moved across the stage in their bare feet, their chiffon costumes trailing wildly behind them. They stomped their feet, made noises on the silent wood. They had the grace and balance of traditional dancers, but they had freedom. For weeks, I danced around the house barefoot, making my body dance trees, moon, love, clouds. I never put on toe shoes again.

The clouds paint the landscape of the sky like the mountains create earthly textures. Some days, they are Georgia’s clouds. Small white cotton balls on a variant blue. I expect to see her ladder to the sky, the same way I sometimes expect to see God’s hand reaching out for me from Michelangelo clouds, bother of them offering me a broad sky.

Some morning the coyotes are twisted in the middle of the road like the clothes I discard on my bedroom floor. I have to swerve to miss them. They are flattened against the road, but I can see the forms of their bodies beneath the still fur. Their heads are cast at a ghastly angle, their paws and legs twisted around their bodies in a surrealistic hug. These dead coyotes most resemble their metaphorical images as harbingers of chaos. The lives ones that pass in front of me, day and night, look gentle, not the cunning tricksters of myth.

Caged though, they take on a nervous energy that reveals their desire for freedom. We watched them in cages at the Alamogordo Zoo. They roamed along the tracks they’d rutted in the bottom of their enclosures, ignoring us. Some days, home too long, I pace the house. Tony calls me busy. Is it this cage I lock myself in that sets me stirring, ranging my own rooms with a welling panic, the need to wander?

Last night, a tumbleweed crossed my path like a furtive animal crossing the road for dinner or danger. I braked, fearing the crunch under my wheels and the sense of my own destructive impulses. Hitting the skeleton of a plant though, I felt no crunch beneath my wheels. Why then did I feel the same sense of my own awful power?

Driving home at night, I see Alamogordo glowing in the distance. It looks like the lights that shimmer off the fishing boats in the Gulf early on Florida summer mornings, lights that remind me of home. The home in Florida, where I walked the beaches before dawn and after sundown, watching the boats troll in and out of the bay. and my new home, its light dim in the multitude ahead. Could I find home if I could see the lights? Little brown-gray rabbits watch me from the side of the road. The other day, one ran in front of my car. From the other side of the road, a coyote stood watching her.

Last night a hare dashed right under my car. I think she made it safely across because I didn’t feel the dire thump my tires would have made over her body.These small, fragile animals make me think of my great-great-grandmother, an Apache from the reservation above these roads I travel. She left her home for the danger of the road. Her husband gathered his family in the yard and whipped them all with a horsewhip. I wonder if she covered her children with her body. She spent the last years of her life in an insane asylum in California. A little hare, running from one danger into another and ending up tied to a short stretch of road, a plastic covered road.

Since the weather has gotten cooler, I see mule deer grazing in the pastures, which abut the White Sands Missile Range. None of them have horns. I wonder if this is just a community of women or whether the males have lost their horns already. They bunny white tails flicker as I drive by, but they stand still, huddling.

When I was a little girl, my father would stop on Texas back roads and get us to moo at the cows. The would look at us skeptically, and then moo back in their bored, patronizing manner. What noise does a deer make?

The other day, as I drove to school, I finally saw the hawk who waits for me on the side of the road before she swooped down ahead of my car. Her tail feathers rose up from the yellow line like a hand raised in greeting. Her body must have been flattened over some prey.

I wanted to stop my car, carry her into the desert, pull her tail feathers gently from her skin, then turn around and head for home where I would hang her feathers in the four corners of my room. But I kept driving, returning her wave as the wind from my car lowered her long, red fingers.

Today, a coyote lay curled on its side, slowly deflating like Marshall’s balloons a week after his birthday party, scattered around the house puckered and pale. I want to pick up all the dead creatures of the road, hang them on the outside walls of my house, let their bodies melt away, make noise with their tiny bones, and dance around the darkening yard, covered in their dried skins. 

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