Stories I Tell My Daughter
Once when I was eight we came home in the dark
up our winding dirt road through a tunnel
of thick spring leaves, and our headlights
turned maple and salal into a green glowing vein
flowing gently, leading us sleepily to our beds.
Suddenly the headlights caught an owl, wingspan
as wide as the windshield, every creamy feather etched in perfection, eyes round and huge
and yellow with pupils black enough
to swallow me up, and a curved beak
open in surprise at being face to face
with this steel creature whose own eyes shone
unblinking and wild. The owl didn't cry out
but I did, lunging forward into the dash,
hands beating against what was invisible
between us; I shouted, No! Don't—
The owl spread every pinion, drummed hard
against the skin of air between life and death,
and we drove on home, giddy with fear.
All summer I lay awake on cool sheets, window open,
waiting for a low urgent call.
Once I played the drums, first chair,
ahead of boys who called me squaw.
I stopped wearing braids, stood with my back
to them. Their dirty jokes and snickering
made my strokes tighter, sharper,
hands curved gently around the wooden sticks
in an easy grip, as if they were tools
I had used a long time. Then there was heat
against my back, a low warning call breaking
through the rhythm, stench of singed human hair.
When I turned around, it was Damon, the one
who always called to me in the halls,
I'll give you a little papoose, squaw! He held a butane lighter, flame high
and orange and blue; and he held a chunk
of black hair, my hair, burned off, smoking
in the still bandroom air. That day
I took bloody sticks home to my mother,
who said she expected nothing less
from a girl who spoke to owls.
My father opens a map of California—
traces mountain ranges, rivers, county borders
like family bloodlines. Tuolomne,
Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles,
Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy,
Tehachapi. Places he was happy,
or where tragedy greeted him
like an old unpleasant relative.
A small blue spot marks
Lake Cachuma, created when they
dammed the Santa Ynez, flooded
a valley, divided my father's boyhood: days
he learned to swim the hard way,
and days he walked across the silver scales,
swollen bellies of salmon coming back
to a river that wasn't there.
The government paid those Indians to move away,
he says; I don't know where they went.
In my father's dreams
after the solace of a six-pack,
he follows a longing, a deepness.
When he comes to the valley
drowned by a displaced river
he swims out, floats on his face
with eyes open, looks down into lands not drawn
on any map. Maybe he sees shadows
of a people who are fluid,
fluent in dark water; bodies
long and glinting with sharp-edged jewelry,
mouths still opening, closing
on the stories of our home.
"The Museum's collection inspired this Chihuly series of glass work."
—Washington State Historical Museum exhibit
When Chihuly saw you, he thought
curve, slump, weight.
He felt the smooth sweep
of glass blown into gravity.
When I see you, I open
from an empty round place
dark as stems of maidenhair fern
or the fingers of women
who twined your strength
with reeds and tule, grass and cedar bark.
Labels gleam clean as catalogued prayers.
Twana Skokomish #157 stretches
with a belly-shaped need to hold.
Klickitat #105 rises to receive
camas root and blackberries.
Yakima Sally #24 unfolds toward water,
salmon stitched with purpose.
Indians evolve like everyone else.
I understand safety pins on regalia,
plastic pony beads,
Times change. We grow into
what comes next.
But when I see you, baskets—
locked in cabinets,
preserved in shadows—
I tear wide with want
for the press of my palm
against rushes, willow, redbud;
for bear grass lips frayed and soft
against my cheek. At the edge of the room
old mouths whisper weave, braid, fill.
I take the coiled voices of women
into the walls of this hollow vessel.