Excerpts from Terra Nova
Then the noontime furnace. Heat shuddering up from the sand, the sky a plate, and out in the desert the tents of the Hebrews luffing in wind, their heavy curtains of goat hair thumping on the ropes; they lean and pull. Dust in your throat and eyes, dry film of triturate, sweat dries in streaks down your face. A man or a woman’s robe would blow around their ankles, and the desert god huffs and feints, harassing.
* * *
Down at the edge of the foredune the beach heather is blooming; the small yellow blossoms draw bees. The air quivers with their hover and buzz. From the dunes’ crest you might look down and think to claim whatever lay before you.
A small height may loom in the desert.
* * *
Abraham waits in the doorway, watching. Three men are approaching. This is the beginning of our story, where myth starts toward history.
But first, turn back. The sand blows up in clouds and stings your skin; you hide your eyes with your hand. But stepping back inside there is a silent space, a stillness. Inside the dark tent where stars blink overhead.
There is a woman inside the tent.
Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent and saw three travelers approach. Three men and they all were God. And Abraham rushed forward to meet them and fell at their feet and bowed, brought them forward, he washed their feet, gave them water to drink, begged them to come in to his tent.
In the desert a figure may suddenly appear where before there was only emptiness and bare horizon. The traveler seen in the distance a speck, becomes the center of vision, the world falling away behind him, and the tent rising up from the desert floor his only destination. For the stranger to pass by, for the host to turn away, is unthinkable. Vectors connect them, their presence inside a vast emptiness draws them. Invite the traveler who is come under your care, vagrant upon far lands, and feed him and give him water to wash, and guard his safety with your life. A courtesy neither may refuse.
Before words were written, this law of the desert.
* * *
God came in daylight and ate and drank. Spoke promise to Abraham, and Sarah heard. What is spoken to the man who waits at the door of his tent, aimed past him to the hidden one, the barren wife shamed by her handmaid, the one withdrawn into the daylight dark, no longer awaiting news.
The woman inside the black tent woven of goat hair, whose fibers dry in noonday sun and shrink and pull apart so daylight shines like stars through myriad tiny holes above her. And she could hear, and when she heard the crazy prophecy, she laughed.
I did not laugh she said, and lied to God.
Yes, you did laugh.
* * *
This God, a strange, intangible idea, an emptiness and a power. He has barely come into existence, trying on selves, from the booming thunder God to a broker in treaties; not yet the existential consciousness who will say to Moses: I will be what I will be, or from another source: I am not yet who I am not yet. Here is the God of covenant, striking bargains like a trader. Who told Abraham so many lies until he had to make good, and now Abraham’s descendants are numerous as stars in the sky. Children of Sarah, and the tribes of Hagar’s womb also. The legends are clear on one thing: the children of Abraham belong to Abraham.
* * *
Because of Isaac, Ishmael will be sent away.
I have waited a long time in the doorway, and seen such wonders. The boats and the caravans. The broken sailors and grief-ruined women have all gone on. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted for they are no more… The earth is unmoved. And never came the stranger with the holy promise.
I have watched in the doorway, and I have gone inside to where the dark of day shows stars. The quiet interior, inside my heart the desert immense and silent, racked by winds. And out of the silence a promise, I will make you fruitful, you will be written into time and partake, not left to listen behind a wall. So long have we waited until laughter breaks the waiting and moves us into life where we had hesitated.
“Descended from royalty,” my mother would say, reinventing family history over gin and seconal. I wouldn’t brag if it were me. Some poor scullery maid straight from the workhouse, got with child by a randy young nephew of some Duke or Lord. Surprised her behind the cinders where he pulled up her skirt to see what was what. When her belly swells she’s sent packing from the great house. How low can you fall from second scullery maid? Her child born in squalor, the precious jewel the gene useless without the name. It all comes down from the father.
Dirty she was, grimed with soot and grease and weeks-old sweat–but so was he, all the English happily unwashed –a great democracy of lice– the smell of them would disgust the clean and handsome Indians, who could barely stand to have them in their houses. Not to mention their faces full of hair.
Perhaps he, the forebear, the lordling, younger son of a younger son, grew up to sail for America, to some island or plantation granted by the King, where to recreate feudal splendor and comfort, serfs are needed. For serf read slave. And there to prosper, freely bestowing his seed on Indian women, African slaves and white servants alike, all who kept his fields and horses, his house and barns, and laid his table and scrubbed his floors, and made him rich. If there is royal and “noble” lineage on this shore, it is because owners are fathers of all they covet. The top ape procreates. How we are mingled in blood of hierarchy, given over to dominion.
And dominion is domain, this land owned before it was claimed. She arrived indentured seven years, her child to be raised in service. Did she sign or was she taken? Spirits prowled the London slums, to lure and sometimes kidnap the hapless or desperate poor, offering food and drink and promises of easy work. There was a great profit in servants for the colonies–sign the contract and you might find yourself locked up until the ship could sail, already owned, unfree.
Meanwhile he, our first progenitor, father of thousands unchronicled. How can we claim the father? He must own us or we are not. The father gives himself whether he stays or goes but the birthright is reserved.
* * *
If our fathers were conquerors, our mothers were slaves. Rape splinters the past. And yet, and yet… Nations are born. La Malinche, traitor and mistress of Cortez, mother of the mestizo people, womb and breast, a tortured lullaby.
For us, given: her ruin. Five hundred years. The conqueror owns the future, our bodies spoils of war.
In war, rape is a crime against the fathers. How can we claim the usurper in us? A nation with two hearts.
This cannot be unwound.
* * *
A foundling cannot become a prince, but may be king through conquest–may rise, and forget his original state, forbid it to be spoken of, and live to bestow title on his son, while the blood of lost ancestors cries to him, “My child!”
A man might believe he is his days, and call the nights another world, and long for a life of trumpets, forgetting his flesh, forgetting the beast that is holy in him, the creature with a spirit to redeem him.
Finding ends searching. Follow the creases in the map instead of the roads; you don’t know where you’re going anyway.
The son of a conqueror may be a prince, may live to be king. Or he may be a foundling, sent on a ship to serve empire, or cast off into desert exile. Ishmael, the firstborn, owned Abraham’s blessing. His favorite, Sarah’s bane. But Isaac was tricked and Jacob stole the birthright of his brother. The women of patriarchy vying for their children’s rights, the father’s blessing, wiles and deceptions… What does the mother have to give but life?
A daughter may be sold for sheep, may go with the stranger and never see her home. Eighteen indentured servants sailed on the Mayflower, four of them children; their mother tried for adultery, the father cast them off, “a spurious brood.” Good Quaker whalers refitted their ships for the slave trade and funded that brutal passage. The President’s son in the slave quarters, learning to make nails…
Who can love the sun in its violence,
flaring and undoing itself, a writhing conflagration of gasses, a suffering star? We turn our faces away in fear and grief— that light by which we see can not itself be seen, will incinerate our gaze.
God said to Moses: if you look at me you will perish and be consumed… so showed only his hind parts going away…
Sun, the master of our sky, blotting out the depths of space with its light, as if there were no other worlds, no other stars. This god is one, we live by him utterly. We depend, we require. We can not go past his gaze.
In the white heat of afternoon the air shimmers and crackles like fat dripped on a burner. Big Red glares, all rage and self-immolation. The white sand blazes, burns my feet. Then walking out along the scarp I saw the sand peeled back upon itself a gust of wind cut under it and lifted a slab that rose in air and curled backward —a great serpent shape, leviathan breaching out of the deep — then collapsed, scattering into the billion, trillion, quadrillion specks of dust that are the secret of all matter. Miraculous weird when the earth is torn up in waves and sea creatures and beasts of underworld rise up in daylight. How it was revealed to me just then, the form and substance, transitory, ephemeral, more numerous than stars in the sky. Dust, dust, the trick of wind, sand stinging, peppering my skin, grit in my eyes — I was hurrying home
to hide there from the sun, that raises fever in the brain, that sears the air pulled into my throat. Sun in me then, this devouring god with his unending suffering and rage of self-destruction. Sun in me –cells set off by burning.
* * *
Is it true the sun does not burn? Burning is terrestrial — how homey that word sounds. There is no air in space. The sun fuses and implodes. This is the burning of hell fires which consume themselves without flame.
Who of us can love their original being, unconscious, blind? The core of self before intention, without conscience or plan. This god destroys himself and feeds us his body, the monstrance, symbol of Baal. Older than Yahweh, the sun must become a red giant in five billion years engulfing the dead earth in airless embrace.
* * *
My face flushed, the sun inside me now, drink water to dowse the flame. Fire in me burns up to meet the sky’s inferno, a shrill sound in my ears,, like a thousand cicadas on benzedrine … my ears ring with fever. Babylon hath been a gold cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad. It is too much, we need to dwell under a cloud. Who can love this god I AM, whose only desire is to become, who creates us without care, whose sacrifice engulfs us? And so I hid myself in the garden and stayed back when I heard my name called, knowing I must be cast out.
In the desert Hagar finds no water and lays the boy down to die. The god demands child sacrifice, enjoys the odor of burning flesh.
From: The Lost Fathers
We are wanting a father because we are poor. Our father said nothing against our sacrifice. Sent us into the woods, left us in the night with no fire. Our father said nothing. He went on a boat. He sat with the old men, drinking whisky. We were wagered and lost to the chinaman. He turned his head away. He closed the shop and went into a back room to work on the intricate gears of machines. He called Sunday evenings. He went into the north where there were mills. We never heard word. Daddy. We sat at the table and there was no food. The house was dark, the bank calling on the telephone. A bucket of fish from the wharf. Papa. Pai. He married and made new children. We are poor and hated. We try on bridal dresses in a shop and stare into the long mirror. Veiled, we are lovely, disappearing. Lacey sleeves like wings. The angel stands at the door, bearing a letter. Our father died clutching his heart in an alley. We think at the last minute he called our name.
When a boat leaves the island it sculpts a figure on the water, that other days lies empty and featureless out to the edge of sight. The boat is a vessel holding life, resplendent then with prospects, loaded with cargo and provisions, tools and instruments, eager crew and passengers. Then it becomes a shape, diminishing. A speck, and then nothing. By then the watchers have all turned away.
White widows, they call us. Will our husbands return, do they live? Years pass without word. Like nuns, wed to the invisible, we grow old in our father’s houses, our sons have no inheritance. It is bitter, I am bitter, the island watches me everywhere —watches me wither – watches me work alone in the fields, carry water, carry wood, follow after the sheep.
One man returned after fifty years to die in his bed. Casually, as if all had been preserved for him, who left here barely more than a boy. Husband, you are not Odysseus, only one of his sailors—they all were lost on the voyage, remember, none returned.
* * *
Once the island was empty, just risen from the ocean. For thousands of years no one came. Only birds. What did the birds eat, were there insects then? Small fish, berries, nuts… Did fish come to the streams?
Three hundred thousand years ago this island rose. Black stones. Isolate, where no humans had ever been and no animals, only seabirds. In 1427 the Portuguese came. Here we arrested Columbus as a spy.
Sorrow now when the boats leave. We are so far away from anyone. The sea is not a freedom. It holds us here. Island of familiarity, shore of wonder. The sea an edge, abyssal, we comprehend the bounds, not the abyss.
* * *
A man looks out at the great grey lapping ocean and sees voyages. Immensity before him. Weeks without sight of land and then a new coast. Coast after coast. New life. No more this small island, where… A woman watches the ship sail over the horizon and turns back to her life. No man to help her then, her children fatherless, she works for no future and sleeps alone.
A man is young and he goes. A man grows old and begins longing. Then he will return if he can. He returns not to bring strength but to die in his bed, cared for as a babe. He forgets that he is not the son, the young husband beloved, but an old man remembered by few, whose children have grown up without him, without a father, sons who have hard eyes, daughters with no dowry.
Empires are made by sailors, and widows of the living. Boats leaving. Nothing coming toward. The waves wash and wash.
I stood barefoot in a torn dress by a tarpaper shack in a starving coal town. Unwashed, unlettered, I was never any stranger’s story. I stared straight into the camera. I was once a barbarian among the stones of England. Eight hundred years of tribal war. Before history was written here. When stones were raised on the backs of slaves, and people burned for sacrifice. How our warrior armies terrified the Romans, who were no green troops, fighting their way north for years from tribe to tribe. I remembered a river whose banks had never known a city. Nettles and ferns, ramps and berries. Netting the small rabbits, a barb to spear the glancing fish. On the island the sun falls off the edge of the world. I carried seaweed up to a little garden. Later Vikings landed on shore, killing many villagers and burning their huts; one of these invaders became my great-great-grandfather. So I came to live. Later the plague dead piled in heaps. A remnant survive. A remnant and then a remnant of the remnant, and still we live. I stood in the doorway; see how my feet were bruised and twisted, how thin my arms crossed over my chest. Some brothers and sisters behind me, peering out: the idiot faces of hunger. The shutter clicked once. In this picture everything I am is held; the world is whole behind my stare. The thousands of years to come do not exist.
Leaves swaying against green shutters,
the blind partly raised; its wooden slats settle uneven across the glass. Chipped paint on the sill, flakes curled and crimped like old leaves. The glass shines, filled with rippling green in sunlight, sky floating upside down between the branches.
The secret of the window, both hiding and
revealing, the leaves swaying, reflected in glass -— two worlds, within and without. The oddity of a window, how it teases vision, darkens, reflects. Consider the uncanny nature of mirrors, which swap right for left but not up for down, and always reflect us at half our size. The reflection does not make nature self-aware; the mirror means nothing without us, though we turn self-conscious before it. I gaze into the glass and touch my own face. Why don’t I touch my image in the mirror? It is an other.
In the yard, some kind of bamboo growing eight feet high climbs nearly to the top of the window frames. Underneath, some spiky purple flowers sprout up out of stone. Such perfect quiet this bright morning, no one in the street, only the leaves swaying. Inside that house is the dummy—the bruxa’s idiot son. She got him from lying with some god. Now middle-aged, clumsy and shuffling, mute, misshapen, he stays home, hidden, from time to time glimpsed by strangers.
He stays inside or in the back. Sometimes digs in the yard, stabbing into the hard ground with a shovel and mounding up dirt in piles, later going back to fill in the holes. He sweeps the walk, swishing his broom back and forth over the same five concrete slabs for hours. The broom brushes sand from the slab, then picks up more sand when he drags it back.
Scowling, silent, he stays there, pent in his body, while she, mortal, disappears at will. Shape-shifter, lifting into air as owl, running down the road at midnight among coyotes, calling from tree branches on moony nights. But he, the god’s son, waits in his own flesh forty years, growing slow and heavy. She clips his hair and nails and dresses him in man’s clothes, ties his shoes.
He shows himself to little girls -— yes, like that -— soft, cradled in his hand like a small animal -— see? His mouth gapes, witless. We used to go to the gate and stare, and hide ourselves by the tulip tree. We fear him, he is harmless, his mother leaves him there alone; his loneliness is immense.
Where does she go? Into the wild chasm. Like lightning into a cloud. Into the wilderness just beyond town. Past the abandoned houses, the hidden cemetery where the smallpox victims were buried, out along the back shore where waves from Greenland pound the beach. She returns hard-eyed and fierce and will not speak, or shrieks at some mess he leaves, another blunder or stumble, then feeds him like a bird from her hand, as he moans gently and follows her with his eyes.
Later he will disappear, just walking off one evening along the old fire road, to wander through the woods and into the barren swales, go off and leave no trace, called back to the hills by his father. Don’t we know that the idiot belongs to heaven? And we who have seen him know the captive is redeemed, the visible disappears, and the glass is empty of that image it held so long, released, though his mother’s howls assail the garden walls for years of nights thereafter.
From: The Lost Fathers
Men leave. In hard times they leave harder. Not all men, not the best men. But men who still believe a second chance can save them. Boys still, so full of need they can’t know how they are needed. Women slam cupboards and bank the fire. Children gather in the afternoons and make up stories. The town a spiral through which they wander. passing themselves at every turn. A girl grows old waiting for the father she lost, who, after all, lost her. A boy grows up with a cloud in his vision, unable to see himself as the father rises in his face, appearing out of him in morning light unsparing– but surely he is not that, he cannot be that father, he is the forgotten son, the pain still raw. His mother looks at him and turns away. You have his eyes. She says this as if he has stolen something.
And no one ever leaves this story. The children go on telling it, they long for the old times but when they speak, their memories are so bitter words curdle in their mouths. Stories of abandonment, hurt, hunger and cold, stories with no joy in them, but they say over and over how they want to return. At night they talk to one another and name the streets and say which house they lived in, these careful memories like maps, gone over again and again with no way back.
They think if they go back, they will find their fathers. They think their mothers will become kind then, and spread jam on a piece of bread held out to them. To taste something sweet from the mother, bitter for so long. To know the salt of father watching over.
Breath breathed in nostrils bring life to wake. Break now night, light cracking sky — shekinah, shekinah, descend. And I saw that I was naked so I hid myself in the garden, away from the sun devouring.
I am not yet who I am not yet…
The boats are fitted out for the voyage. Sand blows along the crest above the ocean. There is a woman inside the tent, listening. My son, warm wet in my arms, blue light of world before world still glowing, God fears your clear gaze. Before time, written into time. Become as one of us…
Papa. Da. Taat. Who told you you were naked?
I laughed, and lied to God.
research proposal on employee turnoverCynthia Huntington‘s latest collection, Heavenly Bodies, was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. The excerpts featured here are from a new work in progress titled Terra Nova.