There is a painting of us somewhere. We just don’t know where. And it’s not really of us. Well, it sort of is. You’ll see.
During the spring of another era, I bled to death in a cabin east of the Mississippi. My unborn daughter drowned in my womb and an owl flew down from it’s tree in the middle of the day. I never knew the person my child might have been. Apparently, she wasn’t anyone at all. A midwife was there but rags with ointment and hot water were no match for a breech birth. Dean looked on but there was nothing he could do. Finally the nurse turned to him and said “it’s no use.” She packed her things and left him with the mess. It wasn’t fair. Across the way, a young girl lived alone. She was crazy and blind, both her parents were taken with the fever. Her name was Unfortunate and she would sit in the dirt singing songs to herself. As the midwife walked away sad words floated in the air “that’s the way it goes, that’s the way…” Some endeavors just aren’t meant to be. It’s not true what they say about catching a cold. It’s children that’ll be the death of you.
Dean, I don’t know what his name was then, turned to booze and whores to calm his despair. Five years later a woman with no last name woke up next to a man who had died in the night. She took his wallet on her way out the door. There was nothing in it.
My car is little and efficient. It has front wheel drive and I like to take it places where it shouldn’t go. I snapped out of my visions and realized I was driving too fast down a steep mountain, on a winding dirt road, in the rain. Willow trees slapped the windshield. The voice from the stereo was mine but coming from someone else entirely. Her name is Gillian and, like me, she is the spawn of a midnight pact between a young woman and a drummer. “Some girls are bright as the morning” she sang “and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind.” The wipers swiped at the rain and then snagged a wisp of willow, smearing green across the glass.
In Oregon the ocean washes jellyfish up on the beach. They are nature’s gooey land mines. Even the dead ones will sting you and the stringy fuckers are see-through. The crabs aren’t afraid of them though. Tiny hermit crabs, swimming in puddles around starfish, are not even the slightest bit concerned for the watery Christmas-light tentacles of the jelly. You can walk on the beach, down the line where the water meets the sand and see any given metaphor. I was walking and came upon a shell. The idea that one can hear the ocean in a shell is rhetorical. With the tide splashing salt water in your hair, what else would you hear? I picked it up anyway and, to my surprise, didn’t hear the ocean at all. I heard rain and wheels on dirt. A tired voice told me “Step into the light, poor Lazarus. Don’t lie alone behind the window shade” It may have just been my own thoughts but, in any case, the ocean had nothing to say about it.
No matter how much rain falls, you can’t drive your car off the mountain until you get to the bottom. In the meantime, cars full of lonely guitars and dissonant thoughts only go down the mountain.
Deserts are places where oceans used to be. They no longer have a line where the water meets the sand because the water left, leaving the sand to it’s own devices. When the moon shines on the desert, scorpions grow restless and break into a sweaty panic, often stinging themselves to death for no good reason. A scorpion is equipped with an arsenal sufficient to win any war, even if it’s grossly outnumbered. It’s a shame then how many scorpions fall victim to their own poison. My car rested on a sand dune, parked in the desert for so long the paint had turned to rust and the seats were wire skeletons. Once I had slept in the back but now a wild dog licked her wounds in my stead. A coral snake slid down from inside the bumper and caught itself a scorpion. Headless and squirming, the scorpion’s tail flew up and stung the snake in it’s eye. Two of god’s creatures died there under the rusty car on a moonlit night. From the dashboard came a tiny glow, static crackled and the voice of someone who wasn’t theremused “of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself, well you might be my favorite one of all.”
I thought I should really pay more attention to the road. Being perilously close to the soggy shoulder, one false move could send me cartwheeling over the edge. I would still be going down the mountain, technically, just not the way I had planned. It was all so hypnotizing: the rain and the wipers with the songs and willow trees. Perhaps it was the altitude or maybe the Indian cigarettes. Someone else probably should have been driving, but who? I hummed along with the music “sunshine and sorrow, yesterday, tomorrow…” The car drove itself home.
A southern woman I’ve never met keeps a painting in her attic. She keeps it because it was there when she moved in. The painting depicts a man and a woman sitting on a bench by a window. The new resident of the home believes this scene takes place in what is now her breakfast nook and that the people in the painting used to live in the original part of the house. Once, when the woman’s father came to visit he asked her “whatcha hanging on to that ol’ picture of them niggers for?” “Hush now”, she told him, “it’s not right to call them that and besides they look like half breeds to me.” The old man clacked his dentures with his tongue “sure are a lot of clouds in here. I think it’s gonna rain”. “Dad!” she knew he would never change but still… “can’t you see the woman has green eyes?”
** song lyrics in italics by Gillian Welch