Easter Sunday and my father plans a visit to one of the old Missions along the Camino Real. After church we get on the highway and begin our journey. It is late March or early April. The sky is azure and clouds scud in from the Pacific, thick and white. They break apart as they pass over the range of coastal mountains, and the broken fragments, still large, move swiftly over the land. The land is green, not the green of Germany as I have heard it reported, but a green full of sunlight and rapid change. If the winter and Spring rains have been sufficient, the presence of last year's grasses will be hidden, their gray stalks covered by fresh growth. This Spring the sturdy flowers have opened, and my mother reels off the names as we pass them by: Lupine, California Poppy, Clarkia, Larkspur, Indian Paintbrush, Owl's clover, Buttercup, Vetch, Trillium, Forget-me-not, Columbine, Fairy's Lantern, Pearly Everlasting. The species are so mixed we hardly know the indigenous from the introduced, the native from the volunteer, the survivor from the parasite populations that have sprung up in the friendly habitat. This is California with its rich, false history. Whatever direction one goes, north or south, the flowers mark boundaries, the possibility of their appearance determined by many things: hills or gullies, rainfall or drought, ranches or subdivisions, the presence of other like-minded plants and trees.
We drive far south to the mission in the Los Padres mountains. Here, at the far end of a long, fertile valley, the military has established a base. It is difficult to understand the need for weapons or to feel cheered by the hard-faced, uniformed men, armored vehicles, and what appear to be the underground houses for missiles. No one wants to talk about the war, which explodes with wearisome regularity each night on television. It is Sunday, Easter; the family is enjoying a rare peace. The day is beautiful and the hills sacred. It is hard to imagine destruction. At the mission, the enclosed courtyard is dry and warm, bees buzz among the cacti and purple roses. In the small adobe cells, opened for our inspection, are the accoutrements of the Franciscans, solemn crucifixes nailed above their skinny beds. In other rooms the Indians worked, tanning leather, shoeing horses, cooking the padres' soup. In these troughs, the Indians were fed. Beyond the mission are the remnants of hornos and corrals, the fields of wild bulbs and clover the Indians longed to eat. Under one portico a shiver moves up my spine: the dead, I know suddenly, are buried in the walls, among the arches, and beneath this well-tamped earth.
Across the mountains, not far as the raven flies, lies the ocean, the jagged edge of the continent.
Late Summer in the Sierra
Our friend shows me snapshots:
late summer in the Sierra,
the river full of light, rocks
and sand the color of gold.
On the opposite shore sugar pines
sway in the hot afternoon breeze.
You stand in the water calf-deep,
naked, half-facing the camera.
You are modest.
I can see the exact shape of your breasts,
and beneath a smooth belly,
You are laughing,
bending slightly towards the water.
In another photo you are squatting
with the baby in your arms.
You are still by the river,
and the baby lies across your lap.
She looks to be squirming, cranky.
You look at the photographer,
laughing again. It seems to me
the camera is a little invasive.
But the one who takes the pictures teases you,
and everyone is in a good humor, except the baby
who fusses before falling asleep.
In late afternoon you pack to go home.
Everyone is quiet.
You can hear the sound of water above the swimming hole
where the river curves around a rock.
It's less hot, cool in the shadow of trees.
All day blackberries have ripened.
You pick them as you walk along,
pausing in the shade,
eating berries off the vine.
Some are sweet, some sour.
The juice is very red.
They leave a stain on your fingers
and a suggestion of invisible thorns.
The burdens of the heart are these:
a declaration of love that remains inert,
a kiss that stays unbidden.
The passion of the body—
till it can circulate through the soul
like cold pure water.
Your Least Good Lover
One day you were there in the little cafe where I worked.
I was upstairs slicing meat,
while downstairs you ordered a latte with your friends.
I could see you from the loft where I stood.
How long had it been? Three months?
Three years? I went off my shift,
came downstairs, and walked to your table.
You acted as if it were perfectly natural
and introduced me to the women you were with.
Then we sat together, talking.
You looked happy to see me.
Happy and wary.
That was the beginning of the last
stage of our friendship.
Was it Spring?
Or was that the fall time
you invited me to Fresno
and I drove down 99 East
to sleep in your bed,
next to which you had tacked a poster of Gauguin's
native women? I remember that dead-end
street by the county airport, the house
on its sandy foundation, sycamores
in the dry yard, spiny cactus.
You made it clear: I was your least
good lover. But how I loved you!
The curve of your white girl's hip,
your rib cage of delicate bones,
the color of your breasts,
the way your eyelids fluttered like small moths as you tipped your head back,
chin toward the ceiling.
I loved how your legs looked naked
as you got up from the bed and walked across the floor
for a book, a poem.
Do you remember how the rain fell that October? Hard
and beautiful. I was driving in rain, in fog,
through the orchards,
past yards of marigolds
yellow as flames.
It rained in the foothills
where the Miwok still live.
One evening when I visited
the clouds cleared and a full
hunter's moon broke
over the crest of the Sierra.
We came out of the market
to see it shining in big puddles
that had formed on black asphalt.
Too bad things were that way—
your passion, your lovers.
Too bad for me. Once
you told me about an Indian
boy who had a crush on you.
Your first boyfriend.
He would tease you, you said,
by pulling down the zipper
on a favorite sweater you wore.
Sometimes I envied that boy.
Other times I felt pity.
I could see the exact look in his face
when he looked at you. His dark eyes.
His dark hair. He must have trembled,
hating you and wanting you.
You must have trembled too,
waiting for his mocking aggression.
I know how scared you can be,
and how cold. How pained you've felt,
and then again, how free.