Durango: an acrostic
Dead women walk across prairies in Durango.
Unburdened by their purgatorial in-between, they
roam the Animas, the river of lost souls, grateful for a bridge back.
Ancestral voices accompany their whispers across the
never- never lands of Durango—
ghosts of miners who once quarried coal and silver
offer their histories in shattered headstones, haunted houses, and in the
Ungodly gauchos who gouged the earth,
robbers of children and mothers,
added an injured, ugly side to Durango’s
natural mountain majesty.
Gleaners of silver and people, they moved
on, drawn to the west, when nothing was left in Durango.
Dead women walk across prairies in Durango,
uprooted by death from their beloved mountain town.
Repentant perhaps, but rich from the coal their husbands mined
and mindful that their money lay
not with them, but with descendants of the robbers of children, and mothers
gone west, with the rowdy crowds who departed the
ore and orgies in Durango, for gold dust in California.
Old War Horse
published in The San Francisco Switchback Literary Review 2012
The sign says, “Old War Horse.” Even her mouth reveals a torn past with black teeth stains, their edges worn like whittled, splintered toothpicks, pale gums receding and two front teeth missing. I reach out to touch her ear, the one hanging down, not the perky ear, and she snorts an alarming snort, shakes her head with movement wild and circular, twitches her good ear, saliva spraying from her mouth, dribble trickling from her nose. Flies buzz around the half closed brown eyes, foggy with cataracts. She flicks her tail but the flies lift off and zoom back in. With a guttural grunt the old horse backs up two steps, lowers her mighty head and nudges my hand. Her mane lies askew, mangled with tiny thorns. I want to grab the hair, twist my hand around one clump as if about to pull a weed, extract the thorns one at a time, wash the dry and brittle strands (spikey like winter grass,) suds them up and down with baby shampoo, massage in silky conditioner, and watch her old mane gleam glorious again in sunlight. Perhaps an orchid or two might soften the massive head, one at the ear, another clipped to the forehead with a lady’s sparkling dragonfly hairpin. I run my hands across the piebald skin and feel the raised brutal edge of a tortuous scar, maybe ten inches long, pink and still raw-looking but healed many years ago. I imagine a swordsman on another horse, a warrior horse, cantering downhill, across a bloody battle field of slain comrades, slicing at this great horse and rider with one, maybe two, focused strikes—the fallen rider rolling down and away, down and away, old war horse panting in pain. And I wonder where the warhorse fought her battles? Old warhorse—feet yellowed and sinuous, split and broken, unshoed. Perhaps your feet expected a softer life of walking in moist soil, carrying light ladies sitting sideways to a neighbor’s high tea. You won the prize of country life, out to pasture now, gratefully not destined for glue, but green fields and sweet carrots from small children’s smooth hands and mothers who tell their children to “offer a cube of sugar to the old horse who used to ride into battle,” and whose story now has an end but its beginning has faded into mist.
Published in The Feathered Flounder 2012
The last time I visited my father, we drove to his childhood home— Thousand Acre Sheep Station, dead center Northern Territory, an endless expanse of red soil and gum trees, fenceless and defenseless from hungry dingoes and buzzards. The open jeep bumped and shook its way through scrubby mulgas, around sinkholes and over the occasional dead wallaby. I leaned back and studied the blue sky with its wispy white clouds.
“Some people get claustrophobic out here,” my father said.
I laughed. “In millions of acres of open land?”
“Yes. It’s the lack of familiar things,” he said. “There are no cafes or buildings to hold you up in The Great Empty.”
“You mean people get agoraphobic,” I said.
“Both. Think about it. Anything could happen out here. The mind expands because there’s so much room, so much to fear—caves with ghosts, rock spirits, quicksand. Look how many places there are out here to bury a body. Who would know if you went missing? Who would ever find you? ”
I wiped damp palms across my shorts, put on sunglasses and took a swig from a bottle of beer. Some years ago my cousin had disappeared out here when her tour bus stopped for a water break.
“A sunny day,” they’d said. “Just like any other day.” She wandered off and never came back from “out there” where it’s easy to melt into a chimera, to get lost, lose the trail, meander along the western track instead of the eastern track, sink into the never-never land with its ancient secrets, its unanswered cries from lost children, its whitewashed human bones, its half-decayed cattle with jaws wide open in a scream.
Sun seared into my temples and burned my arms and thighs. Sweat fell in drip, drip, drips, down the front of my T-shirt, like tears for a life cut short. The sun drifted down the horizon. “Put up the windows, Dad.”
He laughed. “Hearing voices?”
The engine putt-putt-putted and stalled out.
My father slammed his fist on the dashboard. “I’ll be damned…better brace yourself, Girlie. We have bigger problems than voices.” He jumped out of the jeep and opened the hood over the steaming, hissing engine, climbed under the car and around the car, flitting like the shadow of a poltergeist. “The stupid idiot in Alice Springs didn’t see a leak,” he said. “There’s a bloody hole in the radiator hose.” My father searched under the seats. “Damn it. No tape. You got any chewing gum?”
I shook my head. “Sorry.”
My father pointed to the sky. “Get into the jeep. It’s getting dark. I need to find gum tree sap and plug up the hole.” He grabbed a flashlight and handed me one. “Back in a jiffy. Sit tight.”
Then he was gone. Night bore down like a gigantic stone hand. Hours passed and the flashlight faded. The great emptiness shrouded my body like dirt around a tomb.
“Dad? Where are you?”
Whispers whispered down the hot wind. My fingers grabbed the warm metal of the door handle and I inched out of the car. Bile rose up my throat, sand shifted beneath my feet and images of my father flashed across my vision—my father lost inside a cave with a broken leg, drowned in a sinkhole, kidnapped, shredded by dingoes while searching for his way back to the jeep. Had we missed the signs of sacred land never-never to be crossed at night? Had the spirits cursed us?
When streaks of pink stained the dawn sky, I pulled a heavy blanket around my shoulders, curled into a ball and shivered on the front seat. I imagined my father’s jaws wide open in a dying scream.
A shadow fell across the windshield of the jeep, and I sat up, eyes wide open. My father’s drawn, white face appeared at my window and I sucked in a gasp of surprise.
“Bloody long night,” he said. “It took hours to find a gum tree with sap, and when I did, I was so tired, I fell asleep on the ground. Hope you didn’t worry too much,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Not at all. I fell asleep too.” I bit my lip. “Just hungry, that’s all.”
My father plugged the hole in the radiator hose and we bumped and rocked our way once more towards his childhood home, Thousand Acre Sheep Station, dead center Northern Territory.
Winter issue 2014 The Copper Review
Sadiki’s fingers whispered across the eight-foot length of copper sheeting—a millimeter in thickness, thin enough to roll, perfect for inscribing letters. He placed four large rocks on either end to keep it steady, positioned the sheet across the stone ledge of the cave, and pulled up the rickety wooden stool he had fashioned from Jerusalem Juniper. Beads of sweat rolled into his eyes. The others in the community said the nearby salt sea lay below ocean level and this explained the heat. They smiled at his sweat-laden skin, his complaints about salty drinking water, but he had signed a pact with the Essenes to live a holy life, near the seas of Judea where a Master was prophesied to teach a new way. Sadiki felt a pang of homesickness for the palm- lined streets of his native Nile. He was not that far from home, but the Roman rulers, who acted like Pharaohs, placed a death warrant on the head of escaped slaves. He could never return, nor would he wish to. Sadiki stared across the blinding white desert, but quickly turned his face back towards the copper scroll. With a sharp tool he sliced the sheet into two equal pieces. His was a special task of holy reward. Trained as a tin and copper scribe from childhood, the Essenes recruited Sadiki to inscribe the hiding places of wealth entrusted to their order by high priests at the Jerusalem temple, priests who prophesied an imminent takeover by Roman soldiers who openly coveted the treasures of the Temple. One of the Essenes offered him a faded, scratched list written on crinkled papyrus. “Copy this onto the copper,” he said. “It will offer a permanent record of where the treasure is hidden.” The list included the locations of “forty talents of silver, a strongbox of silver vessels, and sixty-five ingots of gold buried in the old laundry cave some forty cubits distance from the Jerusalem temple.”
Without the shattering of earthquakes, the hallowed treasures would stay safe from the Romans until future Essenes learned of the hidden desert scrolls and could rebuild their temple and religion in safety.
Sadiki’s fingers trembled in the slow, deliberate attempt to hammer and notch the curve of the strange Hebrew letters, their straight lines, their similarity to her native Egyptian, yet so dissimilar in spelling and suggestion. Her instruments chiseled down, across, diagonal, flowing with the gritty feel of the sharp blade in soft metal, the striking deposit of golden lines and fine dust on a copper canvas. Sadiki dropped an occasional Greek or Egyptian letter at the end and middle of lines, a scribal motif, to let future men know his heritage. A bead of blood dripped from his dry nose and stained the copper, but Sadiki allowed the blood to engage the metal in a pleasing butterfly design. He glanced over at the other eleven scribes who sat against another stone ledge, performing the same holy rite of copying onto parchment and papyrus the translations of Essene religious teachings into modern Aramaic and Hebrew.
The white linen robes and sandaled feet offered the familiar appearance of Roman gatherings with their judgments of crucifixion for criminals and holy men. Sadiki fingered the thick scar across the back of his neck, a reminder of Roman whips from warriors parading through the streets on massive warhorses that gave no heed to puppies, slaves or old women.
One morning, while Sadiki took his regular soak in the salt sea, his heart pounded at the sight of massive dust clouds across the reddening sunrise. He ran from the waters and into the caves shouting: “The Romans are coming. Hide the scrolls.”
In an orderly and calm manner, twelve men in white robes rolled their writings, some unfinished and scrambled up rocky hills and into distant caves where they had buried large clay urns. Each man carried scrolls and remaining fragments into separate caves.
The dust clouds on the horizon grew thicker and closer.
Sadiki rolled his two sections of copper scrolls with help from another man. With one holding a flaming torch, the other carried the treasure into a tiny cave mouth, through a long tunnel, into a confined passageway, arriving at a dark burrow where giant clay urns stood submerged into holes and against walls. The two men pulled five urns forward and lay the copper scrolls on an outcropping of cave wall. They returned the urns to their original places, hiding the copper scrolls. With prayers for the protection of their sacred writings, the two men covered their tracks with dirt and pebbles and fled from the cave.
Inside the home cave, the scribes swept away traces of their existence with straw brooms and calloused hands. “We will now join the rebels of the lower hills,” the leader said.
On their way to the great fortress of the lower hills, deep in the Judean desert, the Essene leader laid his ear to the ground and felt the thunder and tremble of Roman armies.
“We will not all make it to the fortress,” he said. “Let us separate and confuse our hunters. The Temple treasures must be protected. We cannot confess the locations.” He handed a palm-sized linen pouch to each man and they bowed their heads in prayer. Each walked away, unhurried, from the prayer circle: one east, one north, one northeast, one west, one southwest, and the others on southern trails towards the well-hidden fortress of the lower hills.
The shadow of armies clouded the setting sun and hastened the descending twilight.
After two hours of walking, alone but not lonely, thirsty but not hungry, Sadiki stretched out his arms to a silver crescent moon, opened his linen bundle and drank the hemlock, waiting cross-legged and proud upon a boulder, the chill desert wind howling over his frailty, the thunder of Roman torturers almost upon him.