Excerpt #110, Rocking-Chair Moon

Mother Crow
—Carly

This evening, with Sam Cooke’s sweet voice
rising and falling in the close confines
of Grandpa’s prehistoric Beetle,
stirring up images of you and Ben
in the warmest alcoves of my grateful mind,
we chase the sun over Rainy Pass
and—gaining momentum—follow
the bends and dips of Highway 20
as it snakes along the
stony banks of the wide Skagit and moves
toward the river valley.

As the land flattens out and we roll
farther west and encounter more and
more signs of man’s waywardness—
naked hilltops, scarred fields,
soul-piercing lights, throwaway houses,
rusting relics from Detroit’s prideful years,
billboards pushing this and that—
and grasping fingers of emotion begin
tightening their grip on the slick pulsing
chambers of my heart—the atria, the
ventricles, their tireless traffic-cop valves
assigned to stand at the intersections of fresh
and depleted, miraculously directing the flow
of red here and there through all the
segments of piping, large and small and
minuscule—my magical pump murmurs to me:
Time for a gentler path.

And I ask Grandpa if we can go the old way
and he smiles his understanding smile,
although I’m not sure he does understand,
and he takes the next turn, left,
onto the highway of earlier journeys,
and the two-lane road, winding through
a canyon of conifers and cottonwoods,
its pavement smoky-gray under a blanket of
blue far overhead, eases the grasp of the fist,
and I can breathe.

Grandpa urges the old car
out of a tight curve, into a long straight,
and I let myself glance up,
into that purpling blue, and what I glimpse,
what he glimpses, forces us over,
onto the weedy, pebble-strewn shoulder,
to a crunching stop,

for far overhead, a dance has come alive,
begging to be watched:
an eagle—wide-winged, white-capped,
razor-beaked, majestic, circling—
pursued by a small black shape,
nimbly swooping, darting, diving, dodging,
not yielding an inch.

And as I crank down my window
and Grandpa shuts off the engine and
You Send Me,
I hear the cantankerous, courageous
call of the crow, protecting its territory,
and in some nearby cedar, I imagine,
its nest, its young.

I watch, smiling inside,
as the graceful raptor, preserving its
statutory dignity,
soars higher and higher and away,
looking down with its eagle eyes
for easier pickings,
a spent salmon, perhaps,
awaiting deliverance
on a gravel bar of the river.

A feeling once reserved
for the Grandpa’s vintage superheroes—
Wonder Woman, Super Girl, Mighty Mouse—

stirs in me, and for a moment I picture
the crow’s proud, shiny head
on a newly-minted coin,
a reincarnation, perhaps, of the two-pence,
frugally reminding us of the difference
between security and aggression.

But that image is overwhelmed
by a memory of you, Mom,
and the time my third-grade teacher
—Mrs. George—
asked us to come in for a special conference
due to a concern, and because Dad
was out of town you begged Grandpa
to come along for moral support
(as if you needed it),
and we—you, me, Grandpa, Mrs. George—
sat at a squatty classroom table
and with a smooth self-assuredness
born of decades of observation,
she regretfully but smilingly told us that
I had no aptitude for math,
that you should help me adjust
my academic and life goals.

And while I was pondering
the chilling brilliance of her prediction
and trying to hold back my tears,
you slipped on your scary, serene look—
calm smile, bright yet narrowed eyes,
pupils contracted to pinpoints—
and drew yourself up like a mother crow
—ready to take wing—
in your little kid’s chair,
and asked her if she was finished,
and taking her dumbfounded silence
as an answer,

told her you didn’t doubt her credentials
as a teacher but your husband (Dad)
and father (Grandpa) and you (yourself)
wouldn’t wager a penny
on her ability to forecast—
even while standing chin-deep in the ocean—
the rise and fall of the tides,
much less the future of a little girl (me)
who has the whole
ocean of possibilities in front of her.

And while Mrs. George
tried to still her quavering mouth,
smooth her feathers, gather herself
for a reply—or a breath, at least—
you told her that a person
in her position should open doors,
not shut them,
and that our family expected her to give me
the same attention she would give
to her best student of numbers,
and if she didn’t, we would be calling
for the next special conference.

We rose and left
amid a variety of jaw configurations—
hers slack, yours set,
mine resisting a compelling urge
to form a grin,
Grandpa’s not resisting the urge.

We didn’t have a return meeting
with Mrs. George that year. Or ever.

Rejuvenated, wondering if Grandpa and I
have just shared a memory
even though we haven’t shared a word,
I watch him fire up the engine of the VW
and return us to the road,
cool wind pouring in the windows,
cool Sam Cooke sounds
settling again in my ears,
warm feelings swirling in my heart for you
—the velvet hammer—and Grandpa
—the sandstone rock—
and Ben—the fretful survivor,
the hero without a cause—

and tomorrow, while you three
(and Megan and Ethan, too)
sit on the edges of your seats
in the college auditorium,
I’ll cross the stage and pause,
head high, and someone
—not Mrs. George, unfortunately—
will read my name in a clear voice,
and I’ll smile in your direction
and shake the president’s hand
and accept my degree.

In mathematics. With honors.

 

Popping the Question
—Ben

I know both of us
—and probably half the world—
thought our destination was inevitable
right from that first electric moment,
but there’s nothing in me
that takes you and yours for granted,
so I try to stage this most important
if predictable step the right way

with a surprise middle-of-the-night drive
to Cannon Beach
and dawn smiling at us over the hills
and a barefoot stroll
on the cool, wet, deserted sand
past the base of Haystack Rock,
and while a couple of accomplice gulls

claim your sleepy attention for a moment,
I stoop and discover a perfectly shaped,
perfectly preserved sand dollar
that somehow has remained dry
through the rise and fall of the tide,
and I kneel and hand it to you
while turning it upside down

to reveal the enlarged hole in the underside
that Grandpa crafted so carefully
it took him half the night,
and you get this little semi-suspicious look
on your beautiful early-morning face
as I stay kneeling on the packed sand
remembering the times when Dad and I
raced back and forth along this beach,
and you give the shell a little shake
and I hear it click like a key in a lock,
the key to my heart,
above the distant snoring of the surf,
and you jiggle it again, gently,
its sandpapery white surface rosy
in the new light,

and when a glint of silvery metal
flashes past the opening,
you gasp and right the shell,
cupping the palm of your hand under it,
and give it another back-and-forth,
and from the hole, like a voiceless question,
pops the ring, white gold and diamonds,
and I take it from you and
slip it on your finger

while you hold your sand-dollar hand
to your mouth and a tide of tears rises
to your eyes and I say the words
I’ve thought of and dreamed of
and rehearsed for so long and you say
Yes.

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