Wednesday, November 16, 2016

To My Future Granddaughters

Yesterday at dusk I lit two candles for the women and men protecting the waters at Standing Rock, standing up against all odds to the powers of greed and hunger and hate that are closing in upon this land. I prayed for the right words, any words that might do good and be of use. This story is what I wrote. I look at it now and fear it is too hopeful. I look at it now and fear it is not hopeful enough. I am a student of history, and long have been. I fear what has come before and the patterns we are repeating. I fear the way those patterns have always ended. We have gone through at least five thousand years of this. Such patterns are very, very hard to change. I am under no illusion that it could ever be easy. Some days I don't believe that it's possible at all.

And yet, I see so much fire and courage in the hearts of the people around me, and people across the world. So much awakeness gleaming in our eyes. Such fierce love of land and of each other. And so I hope, despite all hope, because hoping and loving and acting on our hope and on our love are the best and only things we can do.

And because I believe in dragons, and I believe in this good earth, who will bring down her own justice before it is too late. May it not become too late.

When Dragons Came

A Story

To my future granddaughters out there beyond the end of the world, where you are gathering laurel nuts and combing out the hair of dragons:

Let me tell you a story. About where the dragons came from. About what it was like when I was a young woman, before ever I carried a child. 

When I was a young woman a white dust had fallen across the land, and people gathered it in fistfuls, fighting each other to get the most, because its taste was unearthly sweet, and it brought on a euphoria that made what was real dissolve in favor of what was desired. A white sleep. Back then, people often loved the simulacra of Things more than the Things themselves, for it was easier to buy a Thing than it was to dig one from the earth. And because we were all afraid of death, so afraid we would swallow any measure of dust, any strength of oblivion, in order not to look there, until our loneliness and our animal despair were such that we forgot what we feared altogether, and turned to sleeping, calling it Life. 

Many of us tried not to breathe in or swallow that dust. And there was still beauty to be found. There always is. I loved many things then. The bay at high tide with a heron walking. Any number of stars. Gathering nuts from the autumn wood. Your grandfather and the warmth of his hand. Food shared with family, with mother and father and brother, with grandones and uncles and aunts. Music under a moon. A fire in the hearth, tea brewed, and wool. Rain. Always, forever, rain. You could still find such things, if you sought them, but you were often alone in the seeking, bumping into others there only as in a dark wood, each desperate for something whole and old and earthly that none of us could ever find entirely, or name. 

In those times, whatever was easiest was called best. And, as always, whatever served the ones who had the most possessions to lose. Not the most life to lose, but the most control over death. For it was not any of us alone, but Earth, who had the most life to lose, and lost it daily, hourly, under the thrall of that white dust, that sleep, that terrible need, and the howling loneliness that crouched behind it all, devouring. 

There came a day one autumn when we knew the world would end. Your grandfather and I were clearing the dying oaks from the land we loved, the land where we were making a new home, our round tent of felt and canvas and hearth to stand inside the changing. Votes came in. Everything we had feared, everything we had not believed, began to come to pass in the hands of one too white with dust to rule, and yet who ruled nonetheless, by the will of  people and their sorrow; and later, by a will only his own. 

No one believed in dragons then, because they had gone into the earth long, long before. There were stories, broken ones, in which dragons burned towns and men killed them for it. Nobody remembered that the older name for dragon was hidden inside the lava and inside the moon, and that bones kept it safe even unto our day, far down in the ground. 

We didn't know we were burning their blood to power our world, not then. We didn't know they might be as small as moths, or as large as the entire night sky, and that they could fly through the earth just as easily as the air. We didn't know because we had been afraid for a very long time, and asleep, and alone. All of this made it hard to see them, to hear them gathering far, far underground, in all the cavities and all the scars made by all the rigs and drills and blasts that had torn the earth, searching for what had always belonged to dragons and not humans, the hordes that should never have been taken away. 

This is how it happened.

In the middle of the country, in the middle of the end, on a great and sacred plain by a great and sacred river, the first people of that land stood a final stand against that white dust, against tanks and guns, against a hunger too dangerous to bear, against the digging up of sacred blood. Everywhere across the country people woke up at last, struggling, from the dust of their lives, They tried to shout their outrage to someone, tried to make it stop, tried to say what mattered, tried to end the long and unspoken war. But by then it was too late. 

An order was delivered. The drilling began. The tanks rolled in for the last time and surrounded the place where people were standing, where people were praying, where people were crying, where the antelope had been gathering and gathering for days, where all the white dust was gone from the ground, where everyone's eyes were open, were clear. 

They stood in peace, without fighting. They stood with fists raised to the sky and they stood with tears falling and falling and the antelope ringed them, ready to die for them. In the very middle of the people were three young woman with black lines painted on their chins. Three sisters holding hands. Three sisters whose beauty was as old as the world. 

The antelope began to stampede. Guns began to fire. And a hole opened in the ground where the three sisters stood. They fell in, and before anyone could follow, the earth closed again. Then it rocked and bucked and the tanks fells sideways and everyone ran for cover together as the river flooded its banks. 

For a time, after that, there was a standstill. Machinery had broken. Drilling was suspended. And all the while, the three sisters were inside the earth, learning the names of dragons, riding the backs of dragons, braiding their hair for battle. 

I knew none of this, then. Nobody did. Only three women inside the earth knew it, and the ones who had taken them there because of their beauty. Don't get me wrong for a moment that their beauty had anything to do with external appearances. Do you think dragons care for the faces of humans? It was the beauty of their souls they saw and took them for, beautiful as the fire at the beginning of the world. They had been waiting all that time for three such as they to stand in that place, in the name of the blood and the land, and not back down, and not turn away. 

This is not a story that ends with three men who went out searching, and the youngest who found them and killed the dragons and saved us all. No. Life went on much as before. A shrine was erected in the place where the sisters had been swallowed, and people brought jars of clear water to pour on that ground in grief. For the digging had begun again, and the smell of oil was in the air, and the taste of oil was in the water. 

A year and a day they were gone and mourned for dead. A miracle, but dead. A year and a day and through it the world's weather grew wild. The ones who ruled us called orders on the bodies of women, on the dark bodies of their brothers and sisters, on the bodies of men in love. They filled the ground and the sky with every imaginable poison, as if there was no end to the curve of the earth. They began work on a Wall. 

And then, all at once on an evening in winter when the stars were very sharp overhead, every light and every engine blew out at once. In that rain of light the air filled with dragons and with three beautiful women wielding battle axes made of fire, come to take back every last thing that had been stolen. The dragons had come to take those thefts back into their bodies and back into the ground. 

They laid the earth to rest that night as she had not rested for hundreds of years, in an ancient veil of green.

All we could see of it that night was auroras, those northern lights which had never danced so far south before. But by morning, the ground was covered with ash and with eggshells, the eggshells of the first animals to ever walk the earth. There they were, crouched in the trees and roofs and riverbeds, on the hoods of cars, the broken telephone wires, the abandoned mines, the quarries,  the sky-scrapers, the parking lots, the mountain tops. Not winged, not horned, not clawed, but older still, and stranger. 

Some people couldn't see them, not yet. Others could, and could not bear the sight. Still others wept, and knelt for joy. But no one, no matter how hard or how hungrily they searched could find a trace of that white dust again. Only ash, which by spring made the fields sprout as never before. Only air so clear and eyes so open we could see every crater on the face of the moon for weeks after. 

It will be long before we can see everything clearly again. Dragons take lifetimes to believe in once more. But you are women of dragons, now. You must gather the laurel nuts and the acorns like we could not. You must say the true name of the water, and wait for it to run clean. Forgive us, oh my granddaughters not yet born. I am so sorry, my dear ones, for we are waking the dragons that you must learn to ride. 

So may you be beautiful in soul. And may they come courting you. May they swallow you whole and make you theirs again, and keepers of that oldest justice: Hers. 

David Lupton's illustration for Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Last Harvest of the World

There are so many words and so many feelings battering at my heart and my spirit today. On behalf of the animals and plants and waters and stones. On behalf of the human beings of this earth, those directly marginalized and oppressed by the patriarchal white supremacist fear rampant in the world right now, and those indirectly affected as well. On behalf of all of our spirits. There is a great, terrible sickness at work. A devastating poison. Today I feel more than ever that we must keep our candles burning at the windows in the face of despair. Those candles might be many things—kind deeds, community outreach, ecological stewardship, painting, singing, sharing words of clarity, of resistance, of change. 

Tonight, all that I feel I can offer is a story. Our world is made of stories. This one is full of despair, but also hope, and transformation. It was written as one of my Tinderbundles with artist Catherine Sieck during the spring of 2015, and while it overtly addresses the drought and immigration in California, it is also a story with deep mythical undercurrents. It is a story beyond its time and place. It feels like a story for today. 

I offer it for free in its entirety, to all of you and any and all you know, to the land and the rain and the air, and to all of the people fearing for their very safety and rights as human beings today. My heart is very sore. I wish I could do more. But a story can be a seed. My hope is that if you are so moved, you will share this link freely. Please do respect our work as artists and refrain from copying or pasting any of this page. Please just share the link. It includes the whole story.

May you all go gently, honoring the dark earth from which we come. 

The Last Harvest of the World

By Sylvia V. Linsteadt
Artwork by Catherine Sieck

© Catherine Sieck 2016

Inside our bodies we saw the land crack with need. Inside our bodies we saw the clouds moving long before they arrived overhead like geese come from elsewhere or a herd of dappled horses dying for fresh range. It was the last harvest of the world and despite everything the monarch butterflies still came.

The growing seasons of peaches and almonds, apricots, strawberries, tangerines and grapes had long since become erratic in the endless summer dry of days, the way the sky was always blue and that blue became a nightmare, a pit in the stomach you couldn’t toss out. All we wanted were the clouds. I was only a child then, a girl of six. My parents still worked the fields, harvesting shriveled peaches in the long and terrible sun. Trucks came to pick up the crates of fruit and drive them west and north, east and south, to cities where people were still doing their best to feign normalcy. We ate things from cans—beans and tomatoes and broccoli that all tasted the same. Like nothing, like exhaust.
 My father told us stories from his childhood—chile peppers the shape of crescent moons and as red as the first blood that comes when you skin your knees, how the clouds would arrive so suddenly out of nowhere, dark steel, and open up and the rain fell so hard it stung your skin, and the thunder made the cats yowl, and the streets rivers. There was a smell he talked about so often I could smell it too: the smell of the fires women would make on dusty street corners to cook their tortillas over, a particular velvety kind of smoke with home in it, and competent hands that know how to live well, and die well, and laugh.
            My mother was different. She cried easily, and her dreams were not of the past but of the future. I saw her trying not to cry when my father told his stories. I saw her look very hard at our socks as she paired them from the plastic tub she brought in from the line, like those socks had something to tell her. She always looked hard at things like that when she was trying not to cry. Her stories were only and always about clouds. My mother, she said that daydreams were healthy. She said the stories inside of dreams should never be discredited or laughed at. She said escape was a tool, and that the future could never become the present without dreams.
            During the first six years of my life, it rained only four times. I don’t remember the first rain because I was too small even to walk. My father said he could hear the almond trees crying with relief. It was in November and it lasted for days. The orange California poppies managed to bloom. They had been waiting since the last winter inside the ground. They always do manage to bloom, if there’s any hope at all. They must find water in the underworld. The dead must bring it to them in tiny buckets from the underground river there. That’s what my mother always said when the poppies bloomed.
People were already leaving the Central Valley by then, even the shanty where we lived outside Mendota in an old tin trailer with other families who had crossed the border and come north needing work so badly that they said yes to the endless dead sea of fields. My father’s sister died of the heat when I was very small. She was too afraid of the foreman to ask for water. My father never told us why, because my sister and I were only eight and three, but I am an old woman now and after all that I have seen it isn’t hard to imagine why she was afraid of that man. It isn’t hard to imagine why she would rather die of thirst than go near him. Sometimes dignity is worth more even than life.
            By the time I was six, there was no more water left in the taps. Most people with money and cars had gone north. We didn’t have enough money even for gas, only for food. My father rode his bicycle to the nearest town for canned things. They, at least, weren’t in too short supply at first, because hardly any one else was crazy or broke enough to stay. My father said he wasn’t going to leave and travel north again on some hope, not in this life. My mother said so too.
At night she smoothed our foreheads and spoke of clouds. Our throats were always dry. My mother’s voice was husky with that dryness, but I thought it sounded beautiful as she told us how water droplets from oceans and rivers, the dying peach leaves, even our own breath, get evaporated in the sun, by his big hands, and pulled up and up into the sky, the way a balloon does, until the sky cools them down again and all that vapor grabs onto little particles of salt or soot or dust and becomes drops, just like tears do out of your eyes. How all those drops, which are sometimes so high up as to be ice crystals, gather together into clouds, which look the same as foam or how certain blooms of stone are made inside the earth. That’s what my mother told us, and it sounded like a lullaby.
            When my mother was a girl in Michoacán she’d dreamed of getting a college degree in meteorology. In another life, she said, she would have been a weather forecaster in a neat blue skirt and red lipstick, pointing to atmospheric currents on big screens with an effervescent, white-toothed smile, but those kinds of daydreams weren’t easy to hold onto when drug cartels and civilian militias were the daily reality, and it was hard to know who to trust, and for what reason your uncle or your cousin or your older brother had disappeared. There was also the heart of a boy who loved the earth with its blood red peppers, and this love took both of them away, on a journey north toward another dream which, it turned out, could be held no more easily than clouds.
            My mother’s dream to be a professional cloud-gazer was a strange dream to have, but she always said it was the only way she could make out, as a girl, that would allow her to daydream as an adult, safe inside her own woolgathering. Life gives you lemons instead sometimes, she would say, kissing our foreheads, rubbing our ears. My little lemonades, she would call us. I have love, I have daughters, daughters who are hungry for stories like other girls are for plastic dolls.
            This, as the land cracked under its own dryness. This, with the skies ever blue. Before the last harvest of the world I could count on my own two hands the number of days I’d seen with clouds in them. Those days we stayed home sick from school and laid out sheets behind the trailer to watch the sky. The Cloud Sisters, our neighbors in the trailer shanty of tin roofs and old trucks called us. There were mountains in the clouds we saw, and great moving herds of hooved animals, sheep or horses, sometimes elephants. There were caverns where spirits lived and oceans and fish and bones and feather pillows, but most of all we loved how they moved. We always asked, where have you come from, where are you going, like a song. They never replied, so sometimes we did for them. We’ve come from the sea, my sister would mumble. We’ve come from the spouts of whales and an island that’s so green with vines you’d get lost there in a second.
We’ve come from a pasture in heaven, I’d whistle and hiss, trying to make my voice sound like wind. Heaven’s way up where the ice crystals form and you could get there too, through the sundogs, but mostly you have to be a spirit first. We’re automatically spirits, being clouds, I’d say, and my sister would interject that you could get there with a good horse too, and then we’d get to dreaming about horses. This was probably because my father liked to tell us about his horse Jitano and how he’d gallop through the jungle when he was young to sit alone in a special place far out in the countryside where there were so many birds they could have made their own clouds if they’d wanted to, just out of songs (and here my mother, trying not to cry while pairing socks, would turn and tease my father, saying he should have been a poet but he’d gone about it all the wrong way, old fool, and now it was far too late). He’d tell us how he’d ride Jitano through town while other boys played basketball and the sound of hooves on the pavement meant everything would be okay, clip clop, clip clop.
It’s strange, looking back over a life, how things in our hearts as children can be prophetic in their clarity. How I saw horses, and my sister saw islands and seas.

The autumn I was six—this we called the last harvest of the world. As I said, only those of us with no means to leave were still there. The foreman and his foreman had months ago abandoned the hundreds of acres of peach and almond trees. The growing and fruiting seasons of trees and plants had become closer and closer together—from an April fruit-budding to February instead, then January, until, under the forever blue, the peaches fruited one last time in November even as they died.
My father was the one who named it the last harvest of the world. That’s what the peach trees were calling it, he said, and since there was no one left to punish or to pay us, we gathered them freely. There weren’t many. Only the trees with roots somehow far down in the underworld had anything left in them to make fruit. Spirit trees, mother called them. Her eyes were far away by then, not looking hard to get away from tears. Far away because she was always watching the sky.
There’s water coming, she started to say that November of the last harvest in the world. It hadn’t rained in two years. The last of the reservoir water that irrigated the orchards was gone back in June. We were down to the final two dozen gallon jugs my father kept stored under the trailer, adding some every year as the sky got bluer and the ground drier.
In the sprawling suburb towns nearby we heard tell of street fighting at the corner stores and abandoned supermarkets, the ones my father had so recently ridden his bicycle too. Chaos was in the air, close as the dust. We stayed where we were. My father said he’d seen enough street fighting to fill a lifetime. We ate beans and the last lumpy peaches. My mother dried some of them on the roof of the trailer, to save for the future, the last peaches in the world. They were the sweetest we’d ever tasted. All sugar, hardly any juice.
I don’t think anyone but me believed my mother and her faraway looks at the blue, and that was probably because I was only six. Even my sister, at eleven, was growing up fast. She counted the stored cans obsessively. She did math equations to predict how long we had before we ran out. My father was nervous all the time. Someone’s going to figure out we’re sitting on water jugs and beans sooner or later, he whispered to my mother at night when he thought my sister and I were asleep. We weren’t.
There are clouds coming, my mother said, and I could tell the way my father looked at her just by the silence; a sad quiet look, his little nod, eyes down to his hands. She’s loosing her senses, that’s what he thought. The stress, all these years watching the world and its dreams crack and wither, all these years doing her best not to cry, and daydreaming to make it bearable, as if telling stories about clouds and the way they’re made like stories could coax something into being, like stories could make it all right again.
We need to leave, my father would say in reply.
I’m not going north again in this lifetime, my mother would retort.
But south is only worse. The sky is bluer there.
Then east, and up to the mountains. The clouds are coming. The clouds are coming.

She was right. My mother, I see now, was always right. But first, the monarchs came. They were flying west from the mountains across the Central Valley to the gentle coast, but they never made it there. The water was gone from the creeks and ponds they stopped at along the way. They knew about those water places even though they’d never made the journey before. They knew the journey too. It must be in their wings, all stained like church windows. Or their black bodies which are so small but so sturdy too. I think we all have journeys like that in us, stored away so in case we ever turn to soup inside silk cocoons and make it out again with wings, we know our way back to the home we may or may not have ever seen.
The monarchs came, so many together I thought at first they were my mother’s clouds, low and oddly bright and glinting. It was the end of November. There was no one but us in the shanty by the peach groves to see them. Their black and orange and white windowpane wings all beating together made a wind and we ran after them, my sister and I, into the dead orchard. They landed in the gray branches and I wanted to cry when I saw them in their stillness—they were ragged and dusty. They were dying too, like the trees had done. I felt terrible about the peaches then—their black tongues were unfurling frantically at the nubs where the peaches and their final juice had been before we plucked them. Why had we eaten them all? Why hadn’t we thought of butterflies, and birds?
“We have water, we have water!” I yelled, waving my arms. They didn’t startle easily. They were too tired. I ran back home and asked my mother to lay all the plates out and fill them with water. In her eyes I saw she would have done it but my father heard me and yelled and threw one of the plates, snatching it from my hands as I took it off the drying rack. My father never yelled, and never threw.

In the morning we saw that the butterflies had come to the silver roofs of the trailers, ours and others, thinking they were pools of reflective water, too tired to be wise. There they died in the sun and blue. A breeze came and they twirled down through the air to the ground, brittle and more delicate than anything I’d ever held.
The clouds are coming, my mother said again, cupping handfuls of dead monarchs. They knew it, only they came too soon, she whispered, touching their wings. They used to come when I was a girl, every year at the beginning of November. For the Day of the Dead. Our ancestors. Her eyes had tears in them.
I cried at the sight of all of them, falling to the ground from the roofs in the breeze.
They scared my father. A thousand terrible ghosts, he called them, following us—what did they want? He decided we would leave that day. He’d been constructing a cart for the back of his bicycle, to carry most of the water. He told us to go in and pack our school backpacks with clothes. No books or toys. There was only room for water and food. People will come here and kill us for what we still have, he said, and my mother gave him her hard eyes, the angry kind, and told him he’d never had the knack for predictions, nor any kind of intuitive abilities to speak of, so why was he scaring his girls. The clouds were coming. It would be alright. 
Even if they are coming, the best a cloud can bring is rain. Not food. That’s what my father said, and my mother couldn’t argue with this. We left the next morning. The night before, I went out with a sweatshirt. I’d cinched up the hood so it was like a bag. I filled it with dead monarchs. I didn’t know why. I just couldn’t bear to leave them all that way, like forgotten pieces of paper. Like trash.
We went east toward the mountains. My mother said when she first came here, all their caps were glacial, white with snow. But we walked only toward brown crags, dusty like everything else, the air settled at the base of them a smudge of smog.
Maybe I always had something of the clairvoyance of my mother in me. I saw the clouds coming inside of me too, two whole days before they really did. I know my mother did as well. Her eyes got bright, like the day a special guest is due to arrive and you can’t help but linger near the door, checking the windows often.
My father pedaled the bicycle and when my sister and I got tired, he let us take turns sitting in the back with the water. We didn’t move very fast. He was always looking over his shoulders. My sister copied him. She jumped at any sudden sound. We kept to the fields, away from towns where people might be. It was difficult to trust even the idea of others.
 When we actually saw another family on the morning of the day the clouds came, we had grown so wary that the sight of them—a mother, a father, a son, a grandmother, dusty and dark eyed and as frightened as we were—made me cold and hot by turns with fear. They were camped in a drainage canal. We came upon them through a dead grape orchard, the vines nothing but brittle curling silhouettes in the sunrise light. We two families circled each other the way jaguars would have, ascertaining whether the other meant to pounce.
Finally it was my mother who took a step forward and bowed her head very low to the grandmother, a stooped woman with skin as cracked as the dry earth. The clouds are coming, she whispered, not in Spanish but in the other, older language she knew, one she’d spoken only as a small girl with her own grandmother.
Oh, the old woman murmured, delighted. Oh yes, I know.
To the rest of us, until my mother told me later what was said, all we knew was that we were safe. We could trust one another and sit down there in the old canal, where they were boiling water in a pan over a ragged tin can fire. We could set down loads and share what we feared, what we had seen, what life might bring us tomorrow.
I kept stealing looks to the west. Inside me the clouds were enormous and moving fast, the brightest white you’ve ever seen, sun polished, with steel-silver hollows and bellies and whorls. Inside me they were taut and restless and some very high up ones were made all of ice crystals that wisped like the tails of horses blown out in a big wind.
Those were the ones that came first—long, high up tails of white, streaked and silvery like the wind was one endless arm through them. It was noon. The fathers were discussing the safety of their families. Both had been gathering glass bottles, and were sharing their collections, and how best to break them to turn them into knives. My sister and their boy, who was maybe twelve, were shyly throwing rocks together at fence posts. In case of enemies, I heard him saying, we have to practice, and my sister, she’d always had a fierce side, she could throw the rocks as hard as he, and more accurately. Her one dark braid thumped as she threw and he grinned at her, impressed. His teeth were all crooked but it was a true smile and it made her redden and toss her braid around a little, which on another day would have made me giggle and tease her but today I was standing with my mother and the grandmother waiting for clouds.
 The boy’s mother, who had red hair and freckles and spoke our language with an accent, but sweetly, was making tea in the pot with roadside weeds, the kind that never seem to die—yellow flowers and something like sage. We weren’t saying anything, only watching the long white tails blowing high up and toward us. The land was so flat there, facing west, you couldn’t tell any distances because the horizon was quickly a yellow smudged blur of smog and field. The clouds seemed to reach right out of that place between the ground and the very far away.
It took them all afternoon to reach over our heads. Only then did my father look up. When he did he made a sound like a yelp, like dog getting his tail stepped on. His face was wet and I thought maybe the rain had started over his head but then I saw he was crying because he ran to my mother and lifted her up in his arms. He must have been ashamed for not believing her. Her shoes which were only raggedy slip-ons fell off as he lifted her up and kissed her mouth and neck. I felt warm and uncomfortable and looked away because he had so much need I never knew about before.
The grandmother took my small hand in her own small hand and pointed with her other, to the west. I saw them then, a hundred thousand white geese flying. Behind them loomed the big clouds I’d seen inside me, pillowed and crisp and billowing, their outlines so clearly defined I was sure a person could stand in them. From where we stood it looked like the geese were flying right out of them, or pulling them, or creating them with the rushing tailwind made by their wings, but that was only an illusion of space and time. Really the clouds had been traveling down from the cold lands, and east across the oceans in the forever time of clouds which is as long as their condensing and then dissolving. They were strong and old and white-maned, a precious caravan.
That night, the sun set inside mountains of whorled white. The sky turned to peach, to eggplant, to lemon, and my mother said it was enough of a feast to keep her full for weeks, just the colors. The grandmother said all gifts must be received warily, and wisely, for there are always tests in them.
We were sure it would rain that night. The clouds ranged everywhere overhead. It felt like being held in enormous arms, like the sky had come down to be near to us again. We had a sheet, and the other family had a tarp. We tied them across old grape vines and waited for the sound of water pattering. But we woke instead to the sound of hooves.
The clouds filled the morning sky in every direction, all the way to the mountains. Their tops were hidden now in that bright clarity of white. Around us, horses stood everywhere. They stamped and snorted and swished their tails. They nosed around at dead weeds. They were a scrappy herd with white and brown splotches like the outlines of lakes.
 My father was certain they’d escaped from some abandoned pasture, but in the night I’d felt like the clouds had come down so low that they had touched the ground, and that the touching had about it the sound of hooves, and that the clouds breathed grassy, loud breaths like horses do. I couldn’t say what kind of dream that was, a waking or a sleeping one, but in the darkness I very clearly saw one horse walk, clip clip, out of the cloud. He was the color of gunmetal storms with white dapples on his haunches, each dapple a cloud, each dapple come a long wandering way from elsewhere. His snorting made me giggle and I knew when I saw him that he would save our lives, so I fell finally into the kind of sleep that has no dreams, only quiet, like the time before a person is born.
In the daylight, at the outside of the herd, I saw the gunmetal horse with his many dapples, and knew it was an awake dream I’d had in the night, and that creatures do live inside the clouds the same way they do in mountains and in oceans.
Then the geese landed. Their wingbeats were a whirlwind compared to the small wings of the monarchs. Watching them land, it was like watching the sky fall, gently, in a thousand plump white pieces. Our hair moved in their wind. We were all crying now.
Touch nothing that doesn’t offer itself. Only the humble can hope to inherit the earth. I heard the old grandmother saying this into the wind of goose feathers. I have never forgotten it.
The dappled horse turned and looked at me then. It’s hard to tell exactly where horses are looking because their eyes are on the sides of their heads but I knew he was looking at me by the way my hands got all tingly, and my chest too. Nobody moved as he picked his way through the geese and came right to me, his nose lowered to the level of my eyes. I wasn’t afraid, even though he was enormous. With a big thick tongue he began to lick my hands. It was rough in texture, but gentle. Once he had finished with my hands he moved on to my neck and cheeks. I stayed very still.
He wants salt, my mother murmured at last. She held out her own hands toward the other horses. Shyly, my sister followed suit, and the boy, and his mother, and then grudgingly the fathers, who I think were looking with hunger and not reverence at the horses and geese only a moment before. The grandmother kept where she was, standing very still, where she’d been standing since daybreak. Snow geese had gathered close to her ankles, resting with their heads in their feathers.

* * *

You wouldn’t think that tules and cattails would lie in wait under asphalt and dusty fields of wheat for two hundred years until their river floodplain returned. You wouldn’t think any being could hope like that. But maybe that’s all a seed is, anyway. Pure hope, sustained no matter how many cracks there are in the ground, sustained until the cracks are so many that they in fact open the ground up like a hungry mouth or a wound, wanting to be made mud again, and reborn.
In the deep marsh of my old age, I gather the starchy rhizomes of the cattails for dinner and it’s a prayer, a baptism, every time: my old body folding, waist deep in green water and muck, wrists in the mud, easing the roots out—pop. Baked in the fire, they are sweet and thick on the tongue. Even after all these years, I still weep sometimes, standing waist deep in the summer marsh, looking east over the great flatness of this valley which once was dust and dying.
Now there is the lake we call Tule, and a labyrinth of those bulrushes and cattails. You could paddle for days and gain only a mile as the crow flies in any intended direction. It’s endless, in this way, in its essential meandering. In the sturdy places where the feet don’t sink there are wild herds of horses, and cows gone feral, and sheep. The snow geese return every winter, and when they return we weep. 
Even after all these years, I still can’t always believe my own old eyes—the green and wet of the marsh, my worn hands pulling tubers up from the prodigal mud. Sometimes I’m still a little girl of six, carrying half a gallon of water and a sweatshirt of dead butterflies in my pink school backpack through never-ending dead wheat fields and gray almond orchards. I’m still a little girl holding her fingers out to a gunmetal horse, letting him clean them of all salt while the clouds thicken and veer like cream coming into butter.
 I’m still standing with my hands under the lips of the cloud-dappled horse when the sound of the first gunshot rang out. Because the clouds were close and mountainous the crack of the gun was muffled, dull, as my father fell down to the ground and I realized it was muffled too inside his body, and the other sounds clamoring in my ears were my mother screaming and the geese flapping and the horses thundering on, all except the dappled gray and two others, a pinto brown with splotches like lakes, a white mare with red freckles, the ones who’d come to the salt of our skin and stayed. Again and again waist deep in the peace of marshgrass with only mud and silt and snaking tule channels here, I am six and my father is dead in red blood on the ground, red as the first blood when you skin your knees, red as his peppers.
All around us there are men with rifles and broken glass stuck to their jackets, a terrible armor, and they are hungry for the geese and the horses, for our water, for the mothers and even me and my sister. I see it in how my mother’s eyes roll, looking for us, a fear for more than just our lives. Geese fall from the sky, shot, and horses collapse into the dust.
My father was right to be worried, to fear and to break bottles into knives, though they did little good. The other father, he snarled at the men, brandishing glass, but we all knew how little good this would do. It seemed we’d be dead or worse before it was through, surrounded by vicious men of all kinds, the kind of men who look like they could survive anything.
Standing in the marshgrass as an old woman with tubers in my hands, I can still see him, my dapple-gray horse I came to call Nube, how into this tumult he made his own silence by bowing low, so low onto his knees beside me there could be only one thing he meant, so I did it: I scrambled up onto his back. I screamed for my sister, for my mother, for the others, and saw through the wings and feathers and dust cloud of hooves that the other two horses were lowering their great bodies too. The other father pulled the grandmother up beside him, and his wife. My mother, she wouldn’t leave my father. She heaved him over her shoulder and I know she never had nor would again carry anything so heavy. The boy got on behind her and my sister behind me and then all there was to do was hold onto the manes, the necks, each other, as the horses ran and ran, so hard and fast we may as well have had wings, for the way the dust made clouds and we tore through them.

I am an old woman and I am content by my fire, roasting cattail rhizomes and milking my dappled mare, granddaughter of the horse named Nube who licked salt from my hands and saved us all. There is a foal with mud splashes across white fur who licks my hands each morning just so, and enjoys the baked cattails as much as I. The mare and her foal sleep standing outside my door. My house is a simple thing of twisted cattail mats, and inside it I sleep on a woven bed of tules, and dream of the marsh. My sister and her children and their children live all around me. They braid the foal’s tail with slippery eelgrass and goose feathers. They are good at digging cattails, being small and quick and mud loving, but it’s a messy loud affair then and sometimes I prefer my own silence and the silence of the marsh at dawn, and the great Tule Lake, and the mountains behind us with tiny white dustings at their peaks. There are small marshy islands if you follow the snaking ways between the rushes. Wrens make rough cries announcing whose neighborhood you have come to. Even now, there are places where you can see the tops of almond trees, gray and delicate snags, not all the way submerged.
I like to paddle out under a cloudy sky to the tips of the forgotten orchards and talk to my mother and father, to the dappled horse, old Nube, to the monarch butterflies who came and died too soon, who led us home. For we did find it, home, and know it as such. Here with the cattails baking in the coals and the mare to be milked and the sun setting far away across the lake and marsh and tule canals, setting everything to moving nectar. When the sun sets in so many colors I always remember my mother and the sunrise through the clouds that day when I was six, how she said it was enough of a meal, that peach, that lemon, that eggplant, to last her weeks.
In the end, it was, literally. We didn’t eat anything besides floodwater and mud for weeks and weeks. We left behind all of our water and all of our food when we fled. When the horses stopped at last it was dusk and we were in the middle of a dead cotton field beside a bent greenhouse tunnel where someone had once tried to grow tomatoes. There was a rusty old truck and a wheelbarrow and fallen shovels like bones.
My mother wouldn’t let go of my father and I couldn’t look at either of them, not the desperate sadness of my mother, not the limp emptiness of my father, but I heard the grandmother saying you cannot take him sweetheart, the part of him which lives will never leave you, this part you must lay down now so we may live.
The other father helped dig the hole while my sister tried to get me down off the horse but I was gone with my thoughts inside the clouds, looking for my father’s soul up there in the moving white, looking for where the horses could have come from; how they could be here now while my father was empty. I wouldn’t come down while they dug the grave and I wouldn’t come down while they laid him inside and my mother wailed and my sister hid her face. I wouldn’t come down when the clouds turned the color of the dapple-gray horse, nor when the first raindrops began to fall and the others went into the old hoops of plastic sheeting to stay dry.
Even my mother, after a long while breast down to the earth where my father was, stood, muddy everywhere, and begged me to get down, to say something, to snap out of it, I was becoming a ghost before her eyes. But I couldn’t. My body wouldn’t move for me. I held onto the horse’s neck and watched the clouds, how the rain came down like ladders, how it came down like tears, how it smelled like something primordial which had everything and nothing to do with my own small heart. Eventually my mother understood why I couldn’t move and went into the shelter too. Not because she was a bad mother, but because she saw differently than other people, and she saw that my spirit was in a cloud dream; that forcing me down off the horse might very well kill me. The grandmother agreed, and let my mother lay her head down in her lap and cry while the old woman stroked her hair. My sister watched, and never forgot that sorrow in our mother’s crying.
Outside, through the rain, I saw my father’s ghost. When I saw it, made of just the same stuff as the rainclouds, I knew this was why I hadn’t moved, nor the gray horse. So that I could see him one last time. A silver white cloud, his ghost stepped neatly out of that grave and walked just like my father to the truck. It was good I still couldn’t find my body well enough to move, because I would have run to that ghost and tried to hug him, which would have surely dissipated him, and kept him from what it was he did next. I watched it with my own eyes but it was like watching something happening on the old glass screen of the television, a movie we loved as girls where the pumpkin becomes a carriage and the mice become horses.
My father’s ghost, he took the wheels of the truck like they were no more than peaches, plucked. He made axles with the longest shovel handles. Without anyone’s waking he brought the planter boxes out of the greenhouse tunnel, dumped the dry soil, and set them on the axles. Out of old ropes and leather ripped off the truck seats he made yokes, for the horses. Then he brought the whole ribbed tunnel, and my mother, and my sister, and the other family, one by one in his arms. He placed them inside the contraption he had built. Nobody stirred. The rain fell harder, and I saw what it was becoming: a wagon.
It seemed impossible that a bunch of old junk could stay together but the rain was like glue or like what happens to caterpillars inside cocoons when they go to soup and them come out with wings. As if the rain had created a sort of primordial dissolution all around us which allowed truck wheels and plastic tunnels to fulfill the other potentials waiting there inside their molecules. Maybe it’s the same as clouds, how my mother would describe them being made of so many tiny drops condensed around tinier bits of dust and salt that came from many places before, rivers and oceans and tree leaves, to become great moving behemoths in the sky. Maybe, sometimes and only in very great need, matter will rearrange itself like this.
Well, it doesn’t matter much how it happened, in the end, only that I clung frozen to the horse called Nube and watched my father’s ghost meticulously build us a wagon out of scraps. When he was done he touched my mother’s face with his wisped fingers, then my sister’s, before he looked up into the rain, toward the clouds, and began to climb those ladders straight up, until he was indistinguishable from the rainclouds. He never looked my way but I think that’s because he knew I was there, and he knew if he looked he would never be able to leave.
I cried then, all the way through the gray rain into the gray neck of Nube, until sunrise. In the end my mother did have to drag me down to prevent me from dying of simple hypothermia. She stripped my clothes off and made me climb inside her dress. I slept there for days like a little baby with my head to my mother’s breasts which smelled like salt and almonds, my arms around her waist. All I knew was the jostle of wagon wheels, the clip clip of hooves, the patter, then pounding, of rain. I woke from my fevered sleep once and peeped out my mother’s buttonholes to see the covered wagon-bed full of white geese, sitting quietly on all of the empty surfaces, even one in the lap of the grandmother. Later my sister told me it was the grandmother who’d done it. She’d stood with her arms open at the front of the wagon and the snow geese had flown right in, like the knew her arms meant amnesty, meant safety.
There were often gunshots at first, and my sister told me the mud along the road around the wagon was red everywhere with the blood of horses and of geese, shot to be eaten by the starving, when they too had only been seeking freedom, and survival. She told me our wagon was like a ghost wagon, that she was sometimes afraid we were all dead and heading to the underworld, because no one shot at us, no one seemed to even look at us, no one seemed to notice our cart and our horses at all, like they couldn’t see what they didn’t believe in.

These are the things that come sometimes into my mind when I bend and sink my arms into the mud for cattail roots. I wonder what used to be right here, below where I stand. I wonder how much got washed away. Because yes, in the end, the ground rumbled under the weight of all that rain, which had been widening and filling all of its cracks. The clouds and the rain went down to meet the river called San Joaquin which had once lived here and long ago made marshes with its flooding. The rain went right down into the underworld and brought the river back from the dead. The clouds didn’t let up in their opening, and soon it was nearly impossible to distinguish sky from land. Our wagon floated and the horses from the clouds walked on water to pull it, Caballos de Jesús, the grandmother said, and this was called the first miracle of the new world by those who survived, by those who have since watched the marshes grow in again between the flooded orchards and the shattered highways.
The second miracle was the butterflies. Like my father had told me to, I never took my little pink backpack off, not even when I slept, for fear of thieves. It was on my back all night in the first rain while I watched my father’s ghost. It only came off me when my mother stripped my clothes to put me inside her dress, but then she put it safe inside the wagon, tucked away. There were hundreds of dead monarchs in it still, stuffed into my old sweatshirt.
It doesn’t much matter now how long we floated, how long it took us to get accustomed to the sight of horse hooves walking against water like it was an easy road. We drank the floodwater, and swallowed the grit. We didn’t touch the geese. We will all die before we eat these geese, the grandmother said. That is no way to start the world over again. The geese left us after a few days of floating, when the guns were silent and everywhere was a green muck of floodwater.
 For a little while, the water got so high it reached up to the ragged peaks of the mountains. It was like the clouds had brought the sea with them, pulled it all the way in. Then the water receded again. There were other people floating on car doors and on sheets of tin, in boats they’d once had only for vacations. They could see us and our floating wagon and our water-walking horses, but they were too desperate for life to be surprised. Nothing was surprising anymore.
Then one day when the water was only a normal floodplain the horses walked us onto land. They were only bones by then. It was a quiet wind-sheltered dip between two long foothills. Desperate to feel the ground, I took my backpack and ran out onto the earth. The damp soil wobbled under my feet, and something in my backpack thumped. At first I thought it was just my own unsteadiness, but then it thrashed again. Overhead, I could see the clouds were leaving. They were walking west again. I opened my backpack and unrolled the bunched-up sweatshirt. I did it carefully, on the ground, expecting a powder of crushed wings to sift out into the wind. Instead, the air filled with a black and orange fluttering. I heard my mother cry out. A hundred tiny black legs clung to me. Their wings were damp and wrinkled, like they’d just emerged from cocoons. Their black tongues unfurled and licked my skin for nectar.

By the next morning, the butterflies were gone. But every year since then they have returned. And in that place on the cloud-wet earth where I unfurled my sweatshirt so long ago, there is now a stand of milkweed. Every year, they lay their eggs on it, and inside those eggs a whole journey is mapped, the long journey home. 

© Copyright Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2016  The Last Harvest of the World.   

© Catherine Sieck 2016