The relatives, giddy with abandon, tell how they mixed ashes, a father’s with a mother’s, saved for that occasion, then sifted them from their hands into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I hear of it often now: the old ways of my farming ancestors, the body going into the earth whole, put aside for ash into wind. Don’t worry, I console my own. I’ll find a way to scatter you even under the earth. The planet is teeming with neighborly help.
for Raymond Carver and for Chris Morgenroth, Quileute Nation
August 2, 2004
You died early and in summer. Today, observing the anniversary alone in a cabin at La Push, I wandered down to the gray-shingled schoolhouse at the edge of the sea. A Quileute carver came out of a low shed. He held classes in there, he said. Six students at a time. He taught me how to say “I’m going home” in Quileute by holding my tongue in one side of my cheek, letting the sounds slur past it, air from the far cheek a kind of bellows. I felt an entirely other spirit enter my body. It made a shiver rise up in me and I said so. The carver nodded and smiled. He said he taught carving while speaking Quileute. I imagined that affected the outcome, for the syllables compelled a breath in me I’d never experienced before. He showed me a rattle in the shape of a killer whale he’d been carving. The tail had split off, but he said he could glue it back. He let me shake it while he sang a rowing song they used when whaling. My whole arm disappeared into the song; the small stones inside the whale kept pelting the universe, the sound raying out into the past and the future at once, never leaving the moment. He told me his Quileute name, which he said didn’t mean anything except those syllables. Just a name. But I knew he preferred it to any other. “I’m going home,” I said, the best I could in his language, when it was time to walk on down the beach. Fog was rolling in so the rocks offshore began to look conspiratorial. He offered his hand to shake. Our agreement, what was it? Wordless. Like what the fog says when it swallows up an ocean. He swallowed me up and I swallowed him up. And we felt good about it. You died early and in summer. Before heading to the cemetery I made them leave the lid up while I ran out to the garden and picked one more bouquet of sweet peas to fan onto your chest, remembering how you beamed when I placed them on your writing desk in the mornings. You’d draw the scent in deeply, then I’d kiss you on the brow, go out, and quietly close the door. We survive on ritual, on sweet peas in August, letting the scent carry us, so at last the door swings open and we’re both on the same side of it for a while. If you were here we’d sit outside, accompanying the roar of waves as they mingle with the low notes of the buoy bell’s plaintive warning, like some child blowing against the cold edge of a metal pipe. I’d tell you how the Quileute were transformed from wolves into people, though I’m unsure if they liked the change. I’m not the same myself, since their language came into me. I see things differently. With a wolf gazing out. I can’t help my changes any more than you could yours. Our life apart has outstripped the mute kaleidoscope of the hydrangea blossom and its seven changes. I’m looking for the moon now. We’ll have something new to say to each other.
With Setouchi-San In Kyoto
We are like two sisters separated at birth. We giggle with delight in each other’s presence. After a while we turn to talk of love so perfected, when the husband dies it isolates. But I’ve gone on nonetheless to love again. Setouchi-san explains the plight of widows in Japan whose families bury them alive, for they cannot begin anew. The tape recorder is on. Our words are like distant rain. One cannot mourn forever even when one mourns forever. The heart finds a chink in the dark. I give her my late love as example, as permission. If one widow brightens, a cosmos ignites. Setouchi-san’s belief in love is my passport. We lock little fingers, sealing a promise that next time she’ll come to me. We know the odds are against it. But even vows that can’t be enacted are important. The fervent wish spires the moment. After long illness, easy to think we may never see each other again. But fervency says otherwise, says: this side, or that.