by BECKA MARA MCKAY.
Some ash feels like nothing. You dip your fingers near the campfire’s cold throat and catch your hand on a purer kind of air. Some ash is gritty and irreducible. Some ash consorts with moonlight and history, as if to comfort those who remain unmade of smoke. Some ash feels like nothing, and thus travels with you overnight, sneaking into each dream like oxygen’s own reflection, unrefracted. Unwilling to bury the available light in its fur. Some ash cannot get away from you fast enough and climbs the breeze as soon as you release it from its marble chamber. Some ash studies that breeze, investigates wind patterns the way children who don’t know any better investigate beetle carcasses and anthills. Some ash gathers at the firehouse long after the firefighters have moved on to more modern facilities and the interior brick has been commodified. After the heroes, some ash remains. After the battles. After the treaty. After the horses and dogs have been shot so that nobody must witness them starving to death in a place where only ash can propagate. Where only ash can feel like rendered silk under your clumsy thumbs. Some ash is prone to scatter, is liable to stain your fingerprints just like the first person you ever thought of as my lover without embarrassment. Some ash decorates us, finds refuge on our skin as though we were trees and that ash were the bad bird, hoping to hide overnight in the foliage.
I was living in a cliff-side hollow. I had no real friends. The local swallows tried to teach me to use mud to seal off the chinks and leaks in my dwelling. But they were creatures who could only eat on the wing, and I am a creature who can barely drink a glass of wine in a seated position without spilling it on my shirt, and so we could hardly find a common tongue, much less a way to understand each other’s tools and trademarks. My skill at spelling and punctuation was useless up there, where everyone communicated in measures of velocity. Many times I asked myself why I couldn’t just climb back down to a level from which a simple swat at a mosquito wouldn’t necessarily result in a fall from cloud to sea. I must have made my way up there for a reason, but that reason is frozen now. In the end it was not the technology I missed most, but my own grammar and syntax.
All this restriction is a form of compulsion. This is what I overheard on my way to Detroit. Never are you so smug as when you’re getting laid. I have never been to Detroit. But the airport there is not bad. The poor souls who fly in and out every day seem to bunch up against the cold like a flock of stuck deer. In certain fields and farms you may see wet goats, which means a line of goats in the rain, heads turned to the wall as if they’ve all been naughty in class. An extensive goat time out. How often am I truly on my way to Detroit? Maybe only now, as I hear the kettle begin whistling someone else’s pain. (Do you think the inventors of the kettle were injured so often by boiling water that they made their new creation wail as homage to all their flesh wounds?) I am always, always on my way to Detroit.
The coast was coated with a layer of tar, more than just the kind of detritus that washes in with the tide. We were tasked with saving whatever beast had somehow held its breath long enough to be plucked from the mantle. Are your hands really better than my hands at averting disaster? At that tarred shore we saved life after life, peeling a protective film from each reaching eye and pulling out plugs of goo from between the teeth. We were not heroes. Or we were heroes but incapable of bearing the weight of the gratitude that came rafting after us. I don’t believe that any of this happened, but near the end of my time on the beach I met a man who could not decide if he wanted to hold my hand. So our fingers danced on each other’s palms. His hands had no give at all, like little acts of canvas.
The ruby-crowned kinglet never ventures near enough to let you see his crown. He bobbles on the fingers of cedars and shuns the wind’s warning. Winging within, you worry all night about each kinglet, and your worry takes the shape of sharp sweat, until oddly salted you reach for your partner, part here and part lost like any kinglet who missed his migration, ignoring the pattern his companions traced for his race on the sky. All night you worry about the ruby-crowned kinglet’s delayed trajectory. He is not a winter bird. Your faith is not a winter faith.
You do not care for houseplants in the belief that one day they might care for you, gathering at your bedside in your final illness, scattering soil on the rugs. Still, at night, when you hope to sleep, you picture them lifting themselves out of their clay domiciles, shaking vermiculite from their roots and stretching once, like a cat shifting position. You hear them covering the woven distance, tired of leaning toward water and light. This is what sleep is now. This is what sleep in this house has become.
Let’s say the year is 1632. God is the thing that keeps you in line. Let’s say the year is 1923. Once again you have fallen in with the wrong crowd. Your face is a discipline I know little about, says your partner, brandishing a weapon for the sole purpose of allowing you to use the word “brandishing” in a sentence. October was never meant to be this shade of maybe. (Your partner speaks only in noir.) Let’s say the year is 1979.
Perhaps the only true compensation for anatomy is its very permanence, our marriage to these acts of perambulation and stillness that seek to sway history with their unceasing groping and reaching. Their rubbing and grasping. Their sketching. Their skimming. Their haunting. All regret is transport, like the sounds the garbage collectors make, noting the stained silk you had to throw away.
What if when I prune the rosebush I remove some vital part of her thought process, rendering her further mute in an already silenced country? Each ring in a tree’s trunk is the imprint of some spectral grip. Each branch is the sketch of an idea just before its completion in a language we will never enter. Scratch words into a very young pumpkin and watch them grow as the pumpkin swells on its vine. Before I paid a man to come and cut it away, the bamboo was thieving all the sunlight. Every seventh sentence is the one I use to woo my beloved, carving it deep as a message in an autumn field.
This star-shaped place where the web’s threads are punched through is the last will and testament of an errant honeybee, whose thoughts were on his queen as he missed his exit. His U-turn grew gluey, then fatal. How was he supposed to know that something with the intricacy of mercy could also be deadly?
Welcome to the neighborhood, says the naturalist. The lizard is in the philodendron again. The grackle chatters past like lost link, murmuring his amusement to the atmosphere. The cat is a length of caution along the pool’s edge. The imprint of his tongue distends the water into a progeny of patterns. Welcome, says the naturalist, her chuckle not unlike a parrot’s cough. She’s teaching you that everything you’ve heard about hyenas is true. Don’t look now, she says, and her voice is embroidered with something resembling pity, if pity could be so easily threaded through the voice’s needle.
The old woman next door hates when my trees squeeze into her yard. She pushes each frond back onto the property, like horses chastised for nosing out sweeter weeds in the grass of a neighboring ranch. She grips her shears and trims the unnecessary from the jaboticabas and fishtail palms, stopping only to pat the head of the pit bull in the next yard, as though he is a plot device on which she must warm her fingers.
Becka Mara McKay directs the MFA in Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she also received a PhD in comparative literature. Her first book of poems, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010. She has published three translations of fiction from the Hebrew: Laundry (Autumn Hill Books, 2008), Blue Has No South (Clockroot, 2010), and Lunar Savings Time (Clockroot, 2011). Her translations of the Israeli poet Shimon Adaf are forthcoming from Mosaic Press.