Wind taps the window at night,
whistles through cracks and keyholes,
summoning. Along the snowy ridge
she moans a black siguiriya.
I work as darkness encloses my house,
sleep dreamlessly in the afternoon.
When I awaken, burning and hungry,
I listen for wind. She’ll come
scratching holes in sandy soil,
kicking up gravel, sobbing and singing,
the train of her dark skirt
Mom sent us in, whispering in a fierce voice that we should not be afraid, for Mama Bea had “always loved us.” True, the old woman looked like she was sleeping, lying silently in the bronze casket her lawyer had paid for. At first, neither Joyce nor I wanted to look. We hung back. It was odd enough being in the mortuary—a place called “The Little Chapel of the Flowers”—in a building with a mock thatch roof that looked as if it belonged in Old England. It was evening, after dinner. The casket was on a stand of some sort; red velvet curtains hung behind it, like the drapes at either side of a stage. A strange quiet permeated the place. I approached cautiously, not wanting my little sister to think I was afraid. She whimpered softly. I peered in. I’d seen Mama Bea asleep many times, snoring lightly, when I took her an afternoon tray of tea and toast. On the square oak table next to her bed were accoutrements of the elderly—a blue glass bottle of Milk of Magnesia, a leather-covered case for her gold-framed spectacles, a tumbler half full of water. In her casket with its white silk lining, she had more color in her cheeks than I had ever seen. Her eyes were not entirely closed, and her wispy hair had been neatly arranged. The grim mouth, not quite smiling, was non-committal. “Okay,” I whispered to Joyce, “it’s not scary. Really. You’ll see.” My sister crept up to the casket, took a peek, and reared back quickly. “Let’s go,” I said, taking her hand. I believed I was closer to Mama Bea than either of my sisters—Joyce so young, Ann so busy with her horse—and felt I should be crying. Mostly I was relieved to get the ghastly task over with—looking on death, a dead person. With the appointment over, Dad drove us home, no one talking, a dark sky covering the town. It was late March, a rainy spring. Next day, my fourteenth birthday, Mom had me open a present—a gray sweatshirt with a portrait of Beethoven emblazoned on the front. Included with the garment was a small, plastic bust of the composer, wearing his usual frown. This we placed on the piano. Afterwards, Dad took us for a family outing to the old coalfields on Mt. Diablo. Along the roadside, spikes of purple thistle were growing, clutches of poppies and purple lupine. Behind a cast iron fence, there stood a cemetery from the 1800s, the carved headstones of miners, their wives and children. The water in the river delta was choppy, full of whitecaps. Overhead, dark clouds scudded by, tugged by the wind. But shafts of sunlight sometimes broke through, illuminating tufts of new grass, vibrant green among the graves.
North of Gridley, South of Butte City
Hot afternoons in the Sacramento Valley: smoky haze envelops the Marysville Buttes and the lava escarpments where rattlesnakes laze in the sun. Earth bakes in the one hundred degree heat, and no breeze blows till evening, after the glow of sunset has faded. Sound of water, then, coursing through hoses, spurt and hiss of lawn sprinklers in little towns, smell of damp soil, cut grass. In fields and pastures, drying alfalfa lies in windrows ready to be baled while in the vast orchards, globes of fruit ripen—plum, peach, and pear. Shadows deepen beneath the walnut trees, their white grafts brightening as night begins to fall. A freight train rumbles north to Redding or south to Roseville, metal wheels squealing and groaning under the weight of commerce. Mice and rats venture across the two-lane road that parallels the tracks, a barn owl begins its quiet hunt. In elms that bank the slough, among the deadfall, night herons squawk, their cuk-cuk-cuk resounding in the marshy woods. Rustle of leaves in the orchards, otherwise the trees are silent, listening to the night, feeling warm air rise among their boughs, watching as stars glimmer into view—those residents of a far universe where darkness prevails.
Lavanda que te quiero lavanda
– after Federico García Lorca
Lavender how I love you lavender,
violet eyes, indigo lashes,
mountains at dawn, rivers at sunset.
Lavender, how I want you lavender:
scent of lilac on your neck,
floral hint of wine we sip,
your flashes of wit, sweet, dark,
tender, like shadows on snow,
like broken branches. Beguiling
like a girl, your body a meadow
where daylight lingers into long hours,
and twilight is somber, quiet,
and pensive as stars appear slowly
in a deep purple sky. Ausencias y nostalgia,
la triste música del tango, fog in November
on the streets of San Francisco,
smell of baked bread and black coffee,
taste of pastilles, lavender stones
and penumbra. Your beautiful mouth
in a bruising month of winter.
In the morning I run on the Big Springs Trail, late spring, summer, and fall. It’s a dirt access road for the Tilden Park rangers, a fire road. Because our California hills are dry for much of the year, the canyon oak, chaparral, and eucalyptus could provoke a lively burn. Mornings, jogging in wispy fog, I watch a Stellar Jay diving into the branches of a Monterrey Pine, hear a Towhee kicking up leaves beneath a clump of chaparral, or see a young fox diving for a rabbit that had just disappeared down its hidden hole. A breeze rustles the pale red and blue leaves of the oily eucalyptus trees, cools my face as I begin a steep part of the ascent towards the top of the ridge.
The road is rutted with deep cracks, and in some places, sharp or rounded rocks jut out. I have to dance around them, choosing my path carefully. The soil is gritty, a soft brown. My pace slows. To the east I can see the Briones Reservoir, its water glinting a silvery gray. The bleached slopes of the hills, the shadowy greens of oaks and laurels, spread up the banks and into the canyons. Farther east, Mt. Diablo rises, and I can hear the drone of the freeways, the streams of traffic. The acrid smell of weeds, dry brush, deadfall, then the full force of the bay wind travels briskly upslope when I reach the apex of the ridge. To the west toward the bay and ocean, fog has burned away. The sky above the shoulder of Mt. Tamalpais glows. The clump of dark outcrops called the Farallone Islands look like the backs of whales.
What have I been thinking about? Nothing. Or rather as I run, I silently sing a Kate Wolf song about the Red-tail Hawk, remembering the time I saw a hawk soaring high above, the silvery chain of a snake writhing in its talons. Moving, sweating, physically straining, the other things that come to mind disturb me less: my mom’s illness, my dad’s transvestism, and the slender woman I’m in love with.
The highest place on the road feels like the top of the world. Right here, my older sister and I once spotted a Coral Snake slipping beneath some dried wood and brush, a rare sight. Garter snakes and even rattlers are a bit more common. I used to have dreams about snakes; I believed they were friendly creatures, that often talked. Invariably, after such a dream, I would see a snake next time I went out running. Now, looking north, panting lightly, I catch my breath. I can see loaf-shaped Mt. St. Helena, the far reaches of Suisun Bay, the rolling Marin hills. I turn to the south. Beyond the suburban towns lie the rangelands and valleys, big cattle ranches, watersheds, the multitude of wildflowers growing in secret places during the passing of seasons: Owl’s Clover, Coreopsis, Clarkia, Buttercups, California Poppies, Lupine, Turk’s Cap, Scarlet Pimpernel. I can feel the sun warming the top of my head, while my body is cooling in the fresh breeze. I like to imagine the time before the White People came to this land, a time of plentiful game, salmon runs, Grizzly Bears, honey bees among the flowers, women grinding acorns while their children scrambled among the rocks playing. People fished along Wildcat Creek or went clamming on the mudflats by the side of the bay.
When I start trotting down the road, back to the trailhead, I have to be careful where the dirt track is steepest and the soil crumbly. Then I’ll drive home to our old house, to the big, quiet rooms, the hum of Mom’s sewing machine, where she sits making ragdolls and toys to fend off the certain pain that lies ahead. I will return to my bedroom with its books, papers, and poems. My studies. My helplessness. But the sweat drying on my body feels good, and that moment at the top of the hill, when I could lose myself in memory stays with me. I will always know the smell of these canyons, this sky, the feel of this earth beneath my feet.
These poems and the following interview are the first in a regular series guest-edited by Jennifer Elise Foerster.
Janice Gould’s tribal affiliation is Concow (koyoonk’auwi). She attended the University of California, earning a BA in Linguistics and a Master’s in English, and later, from the University of New Mexico, a Ph.D. in English. A second Master’s degree (in Library Science) was earned at the University of Arizona. From 2014-2016, Janice served as the Pike’s Peak Poet Laureate. Her poetry has garnered awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Astraea Foundation. Her latest book of poetry, Doubters and Dreamers, was a finalist for the Colorado Book and the Milton Kessler Book Awards. Her chapbook, The Force of Gratitude, was the finalist for the Charlotte Mew Poetry Chapbook contest. Janice is also the author of Earthquake Weather, Beneath My Heart, and Alphabet, and she co-edited a volume of essays on American Indian poetry, Speak to Me Words. She is an Associate Professor in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she teaches Native American Studies.
“Lavanda que te quiero lavand” and “Cante jondo” were first published in The Force of Gratitude (Headmistress Press, 2017)