Monday, October 19, 1987

Cazadero benefit poetry reading for the Cazadero Academy (art)

10/18  Cazadero benefit poetry reading for the Cazadero Academy.

Readers include myself, Mike Tuggle, Susan Kennedy, John Oliver Simon, Richard Garcia, Pam Singer, and Stephen Torre. Not everybody was on the flyer. It turned into a marathon. Bill Witherup, Michael Syles, Jim Dodge.

I very much like Stephen Torre's work. I think he would make a good guest artist for my CAC project. This poem about logging on the Navarro River is incredible. He's the lumberjack I was looking for.

87 or 88?

Thursday, October 1, 1987

There is so Much We Save from Childhood

Stephanie's mother died in the fire. A beam caught her on the forehead. She fell behind the door and Joe Bianchi never saw her until it was too late. They said the smoke killed her. They later blamed a faulty wire from a clothes drier, they blamed her drinking.

Smoke rose up like a thick black dragon snake to the empty blue sky as we walked through the fields from the bus stop. We were home from school. When he saw the source of the smoke, her brother Eric darted towards the house and the adults came running out from all sides trying to head us off but we were errant calves headed toward the barn, toward the burning light.

Steph and I stood by the corral trying to find a way to comprehend what we couldn't understand. I was almost ten. The oldest one. I held her hand. We retreated to the lower field and watched the flames eat the sky.

In the glistening cinders, we found a dog-eared photograph, an armless doll, the bent tricycle wheel, some hair tied with a grubby ribbon the color of rust and baby roses. Johanna's childhood toy horses covered with real fur and had real manes and tails that were miraculously unharmed. We indiscriminately admired the beauty of charcoal and emerald green sprouts of winter grass amid the rusted nails and glass rubble.

The end of a life, of an era. Of childhood. No more late afternoons, where we dozed off, bees buzzing to Brahm's Lullaby, when sonorous sleep blanketed the eye with the pale light of summer. The familiar gesture of a stranger, the face of a father. Not my own.

When we were impatient to grow up. Her father said, Stay children always. Stay young. His spaniel voice hung mournfully from our ears as we played. Stephanie listened and found that if she quit feeling, quit eating, Time stood still. While I hid the shame of my hunger, she denied its existence. She had climbed up out of this carnal world to a higher plane of existence. She left no ladder for me to follow.

One morning, Les placed the sick lab puppy with the blue tongue and cold feet on the oak stump to ripen in the winter sun. Its tender black ears like velvet moleskin gathered in no sound as the hatchet bit into the oak. We suspected the worst.

Somehow we got through it. We placed one foot in front of the other. As one foot lifted from the earth, we compensated for the earth's pull. We developed a trust for the way our feet brushed the surface and though we tottered on stilts always falling forward or backward, we caught ourselves at each step.

I have a vague memory of my own father asleep with his head on my mother's lap. She stroked his hair, the ocean pounded and the windows covered with spume.

When Stephanie's mother Johanna rode Binty, she let down her long black hair, a night waterfall. Binty pricked up her ears and tail, gathered in her haunches and leaped from the earth to fly up the driveway. She was no longer of this earthly plane with that precious cargo on her back.

And Binty's sister, Sununu, the red Arabian swallow, whinnied out a welcome as if her heart were about to burst.

Gravel scuttled in all directions, like our childhood.

Stephanie confided in me that her mother was a Russian translator for the United Nations. Johanna majored in Slavic languages at UC Berkeley. She was being watched by the government. We overheard words like McCarthy and FBI. Mimi spoke little English. Devuchka, she'd say.

Speaking the language of the enemy was enough to condemn a person during the purges. This I learned later. Hellman. Hammett taking the Fifth. Red diaper baby! It became a dream to go to Russia because of Johanna but I never rode troikas in the snow.

Astride Binty, Stephanie's thin legs barely reached half-way to the mare's sides. Binty knew the weight of the rider was not of Johanna, so she ran us into the sides of barns, and off cliffs to rid us of the memory.

Soon no one but Steph would ride her. Whether by grief or boredom, Binty began to chew on the barn. First the manger disappeared, then the stalls, soon the barn was as hollow as our hearts.

Binty turned white with age. Stephanie got married, moved away to the desert, got thin after the children were born, it was as if the Arizona sun sucked all the moisture from her bones. Later the cancer would come and drink the marrow from her bones but on some level, Steph was already gone.

They said Binty died with a splinter in her throat from chewing on too many fences. She'd eaten most of the barn with her nervous cribbing. They tried everything to make her stop. Creosote, electric fences, but she chewed that wood as if she was trying to devour every last molecule of scent from her lost mistress.

Johanna no longer needed watching. But sometimes Binty would raise her tail like a banner and run in the pasture as if Johanna were astride.

Stephanie and her two brothers moved into their grandmother Mimi's house at the foot of the road. We made daily pilgrimages past the charred house to feed the horses. Scoured, blackened wood glistening in the rain-heavy grass mesmerized us with its jewel-like splendor.

Perhaps it was because we were both raised by grandmothers, my mother was alive but not present, or because we born a year and two days apart, we were psychic twins.

I remember Johanna so clearly. In spring, she drove us the long way to the store. Sometimes we took the low road to Forest Knolls or the back road around Mt. Barnabe to Olema. As she pointed to Bolinas Ridge, the dark green oldsmobile gently nosed into the stonecrop-covered cliff for a closer look.

Next spring, I took Johanna's name for my conformation name. When it was my turn to approach the Bishop, I solemnly marched up to the altar and kissed his alexandrite ring, but he stopped and said it wasn't a Christian saint's name. He said he couldn't confirm me. The music stopped. Mortified, I replied I didn't care. She was someone I loved. My best friend's mother. She was with grace.

He asked, Would I take Jane? NO. I was so frightened I nearly peed myself but I didn't waver, though it meant excommunication. Eyes of the church upon me. The horrified nuns buzzed in each other's ears, they came up with a solution, and put Joanne, a diminutive Joan of Arc, on my certificate.

Stephanie's horse, Gay Girl, the thoroughbred, didn't get up one winter morning. Steph's brother placed the muzzle of the rifle very carefully over her small white star. A part of our childhood disappeared, locked into memory, as close as kin, as close as air.

A rusted snaffle bit hangs on a nail inside the barn where the swallows gather cobwebs ladened with powdered hay dung. I can't bear to look at the ridge without remembering the way Johanna admired the view of the purple fringed hills and dark shadowy forests on the north slopes. This place, a refuge.

Poor Johanna, living in the country, trapped by domestic life, a brilliant mind, branded by fire. I never knew her maiden name. That day when the house burned to the ground, Stephanie and I became blood sisters, we both had open wounds.

© 2007 Maureen Hurley. A shorter version of this was printed in Creative Discourse, Petaluma, CA 1987, but written earlier. When?

Other horse bits