As boys, we ran wild. Creeping back alleys, cutting through neighborhood yards, hurling crabapples at cars from safe concealment behind trees and hills and night. The park near our house had a stagecoach in the playground. We chased away the younger boys and rode like movie Western cowboys, shooting-down Indians as we hurtled madly down the dusty tumbleweed roads.
The new kid’s name was Shelley. He was from Oklahoma, pure Cherokee. Shy, what little he spoke, he spoke toward his shoes. We were merciless. He once asked me, quietly, without looking up from where he sat alone at the end of our table, if he could borrow a dime for milk.
“No way, Buffalo Butt,” I said, loud enough for my friends to hear. Our table filled with laughter. I felt a perverse thrill, even as I sensed from him my own transformed shame. We were kept after school, lectured, but we were boys, and laughed our way home, over the mesa, and across Fontanero Street, home to our subdivision lives.
Years later, and I am teaching at a Catholic Indian school in Santa Fe. Old adobe buildings, mariachi bands in the distance, the nuns walking the grounds below my classroom window. My second week on the job. I am writing on the board, when I am pelted by a single Juniper berry. Then another. I don’t turn around. Soon, I am being bombarded. Back turned, the chalk in my hand poised against the board, I stand amidst the flurry, and hope Sister Patrick Marie, the principal, will not come in and catch us.
The table at the Michoacán market is covered with sugar coated skulls and the women offer me candy, ask me my name. Flirt in broken English. I long for Santa Fe where soon I will live. Desire is brow sweat in a dim light. A mirror on high ceiling. A sheet wrapped around a bare stretch of leg. A dune mound in a world of sand. Inside a cathedral an old woman cries in her pew. Jesus on the cross, the blood depiction thick across his chest. Outside, sitting on the steps, a Mayan woman in a colorful shawl breastfeeds a baby. There’s a cart selling balloons. Flowers are everywhere. In the night, boats will fish for the dead; candles will light the cemetery where I’ll wander past graves, where mourners will make offerings to their loved ones past. In Santa Fe, she waits for me. When I return, we will marry.
In muted dawn I dwell on deaths not yet come, aging parents, friends, their suicides and cancer. I feel the bracing of it in my gut where it lodges liked a pit and already I can feel an unhinging at their absence. I project forward. Sitting in a time worn felt chair, the leaves outside the window a blurred impression. All those mountains watched only from afar and, those stories lying fragmented and dormant in desk drawers, those nights of love remaining only as spirits playing in the breeze. You could ride a trail of all your nights alone in the black black blackness of the lost dreams and the lost dreams and the old songs preying on memory. Who is it resides there, who is it travels the sinews of this labyrinthine house of mirrors? The ancient Asian painters made a life of line and shape and subtle colors. I long to be made of moon rock charged by light, to be matter floating in space, to be a guitar solo wailing into the screaming crowd, fingered and throttled and bent, to be the paint at the edge of the master’s brush. Instead, I am but a grain of sand bracing for water and wind.
We walk, the two of us, where the flora turns red and gazes up at autumn blue. Tundra brutes roam here. Furry monsters, with fanged teeth, and humped shoulders, their claws like knives. And other fat bodies: bovine on spindly legs, their calcified antlers growing, and white pugnacious beasts with their curled horns. Perhaps what remains of creation reigns here, perhaps all of the doomed planet’s hope. Perhaps the last remnant of original breath waits, waits for us to take back our rightful place in the forest. And instead we hide in the thin veneer of lost cities filled by the vanity we all too often cherish. I look at her. Twenty years together, and this north is our home now. Cloud shadows sketch the land and I think of the child we might have had. See him, standing at the edge of a stream, laughing at snow. Raising his arms and crying out to gliding colonies of arctic terns swooping past. I watch them until they are gone, leaving behind silent ambivalence. We hike the rocky bed to the road’s edge and flag down the evening’s last bus.
3. I Breathe on Glass and Write My Name
Winter in Fairbanks.
Already dark at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Some days I crave the Texas heat I once raged about; I
want that coating sweat to wilt me. Cold inspires want: for
all that has come, and then when it’s gained, a gap remains,
a desire for desire itself.
A memory before a memory:
It is snowing, and Dad and I have been out driving.
It is late fall, before Thanksgiving. We come home to the
smell of Texas chili on the stove and the gentle comfort of
hands slowly warming, of my brother and sister’s boots
piled by the door, of the earthy taste of meat and spice on
my throat as we eat and laugh around the dinner table. That
Christmas we will buy a jukebox. My mother, pretending to
be in one of her dark moods, will send us to our rooms to
clean them. Later, the loud sound of Elvis singing “My
Teddy Bear” and, carefully, we creep down the stairs to
find my parents singing along, a large box of light in the
corner, the music blaring. That is later. On this night, I
thicken my chili with Saltines and listen to the chatter of
siblings, the flakes of swooping glitter beneath the
In snow I dream desert; in the heat, tundra. In
Georgia I imagined solitudinal arctic hikes. The shin-
shivering walk through streams. In this life I grow numb
from the traps of cars, of offices, of empty apartments and
dimly-lit taverns. I seek escape into the passion of creation,
of a poem or a baby or a dream. Cold, this north. But cold
is not numb. It is reawakening, a thrill at the gasp sensation
of nerves. Those days of Georgia, of Texas swelter, I so
longed for you, Winter. Your dark days and thick layered
clothes, and the air filled with breath, dancing in the sky.
Out a frosted window he can make out rising steam
in the winter bitten town. He rests his hand against the
glass, feels the cold and his warmth merge until his hand is
numb and the frost melts. It is its own institution this
apartment. A place to hide, to isolate, to be alone. To think
of that year of singing cicadas, fireflies like stars in the lot
across the gravel road. The warm deck and a single dim
bulb lighting it. Cold beer fading warm. A dream heading
toward a dream, dreams falling like bowling pins, like
downed timber, like demolished urban blight, condemned
to decay. Even small accomplishments have led him to this
place of melancholy mornings. All these places—they
come back to haunt and he finds himself in another Alaskan
winter craving the sweat of Nebraska summer nights, of
east Texas drives through Piney Woods, of Saturday
morning yard sales in Atlanta, of a Colorado snow, or a
juke box lighting the future instead of a reflection in glass
eyeing the past.
Two months later. Winter turns to spring. Outside a
car goes by, the street wet with melting snow. In the trees
pine needles shake off the last of the chill and rise. Spring
here is a world that mirrors the dripping inside. Mostly
water, us. Until the end, when we are dried to bone. Best
not to think of that. Best to close our eyes, to face the
Daryl Farmer’s first book, Bicycling Beyond the Divide, received a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. His recent work has appeared in The Whitefish Review, The Potomac Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Fourth River. He is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he teaches creative writing and literature.