Archive for February, 2012

Before Surgery

Night calms and shelters sleep.

It sits, dark, upon my bed and waits.

Dream finds and covers me.

I open to his presence,

a blossoming of mind and sight.


His tenderness compels.

I open first to him and then to All.

We soar on sparkling tides of mind

chasing photons and streaming galaxies

in swirling curls of wake.

Then we stop to rest and think.


The next and last great thing will be

to thank this grand old carcass for its days,

and wrapped in gentle folds of time,

place it on the doorstep of the infinite.


But not this day….


For crouched beyond the ragged rim of dawn,

tomorrow waits.

My name is slick upon his tongue,

my face a mirror of his vision.

The nebulae that comprise my form

yet resonate in pulse and blood.


My stallion screams, mane and tail aloft.

Hard hoof-beats shake the ground.

When sunrise mounts the urge of day,

We ride!

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Matias feeling frisky

Matias Showing Off

I wonder if Silhouetta and Matias would have ever managed to get together without help.  Matias, a magnificent 16 hand breeding stallion often needed my help putting his business where it did the most good.  Breeding can be dangerous especially for the stallion, so these kinds of liaisons are usually carefully supervised.  My job was to lead him up to the mare’s head so he could nibble her ears and bite her neck until she squealed, raised her tail, and held it quivering to one side.  Then, his polite foreplay dutifully accomplished, he was ready to earn his keep.

I would lead him around to her backside, where a sniff would confirm his suspicions.  He would snort, shake his head and point his nose to the sky while he drew in great gusts of air between bared teeth in order to taste her state of readiness.  I would lead him forward urging him to mount the mare.  He would rear, grasp her rump between his front knees, and with an awesome pelvic thrust, attempt to impale the now wet and willing vulva.  It often didn’t work, a problem of aim, not of motivation, and I was required to grasp his  erection and direct it into the object of his lust.  The rest was horseplay, unremarkable but effective.

* * *

The foal was a beauty, her first.  When I entered the barn for morning feeding, there it was, a pile of pure black Andalusian horseflesh, still wet, steam rising from the hot little body.  The new mother stood, sniffing, snuffling, then nickering, questioning this wet thing that smelled of herself but also of some new amazement.  She still trailed the torn sac and umbilicus, but seemed to have lost interest in them.

I dropped the armful of supplies I carried and slipped into the stall, approaching slowly, carefully.  “Look at what you did.  You pretty girl.  Easy now.  I won’t hurt your baby.”  I grasped her halter and stroked her face.  “It’s OK.  Good girl.”  She turned to the stall’s automatic water basin, the pressure of her nose activating the cool flow.  She slurped, gulped and swallowed, then spun around to check the foal one more time.  She tasted, sniffed, licked.  Then she set to work cleaning her baby.

Kneeling, I rubbed her smooth warm neck, my hand sneaking down beneath her jawline toward the still steaming foal.  It was hot, sticky-wet, still slick with blood and amniotic fluid.  I slipped out of the foaling stall and ran for a towel and the case, packed just for this day, that I had stored in the tack room.  I let the mare smell the towel before I applied it to the baby curled up in the deep straw, then slowly I began to dry its head, neck, and back.  The long legs splayed out willy-nilly, attached to, but not yet acknowledged by the newly launched organism.  Silhouetta spun around, sniffed a reprise, then turned and this time buried her nose in the hay rack.  She was hungry, no doubt had ignored the sweet cured grass during her long hours of primagravida labor.  Her trust in me was evident as she seemed resigned to my ministrations to her foal.

My left hand cradled the baby’s nose, slipping two fingers between black rubbery gums.  It sucked them in, dry swallowing with gusto, instinctively assessing them as teats, not fingers.  I rubbed roughly with the towel held in the other hand.  Stimulated, the baby lunged forward trying to rise, feet scrabbling to no effect.  I scrubbed the long legs and underbelly, checking for gender.  No testicles, but no vulva either.  It was obviously a colt, the balls not yet descended.  I worried.  What kind of stallion had no balls, but what did I know?  Maybe they came down later.  I hoped.  This was my first time midwifing.  The baby tried to get up again as Silhouetta turned, hay trailing from her mouth while she chewed.  The baby thrashed about, his still soft rubbery hooves running in place as he lay on his side, but then folding up underneath himself ready to try again.  I unpacked the case and took out noisy waxed paper which I crumpled up and rubbed all over his body.  Every place had to be accessed with the crinkly paper and its crickly-crackly sounds.  Then I plugged in a Wahl electric trimmer, not to cut any hair, but to mimic the noise of an actual grooming.  I rubbed the vibrating device over the little body, now nearly dry, much as I had the paper.  This would render the colt unafraid of grooming devices, annoying contraptions that in the natural order of things terrify horses.  A new foal has a short window of opportunity to get used to things that horses instinctively fear.  The first day they are quite amenable to accepting new stimulative sensations, the first hour almost magically so.  I was making full use of that initial sixty minutes.

More and more the new baby tried to rise and nurse.  How did he know?  Instinct is powerful, and this experience was showing me just how powerful.  Front legs straight and angled out in front, he pulled his back legs under himself, looking like a seated donkey bookend sold in Tijuana.  Then with a grim determination, he pushed up with his strong back legs.

He was up!   Silhouetta circled him, again and again, brushing against him with her flanks.  How could she know to do that?  I rose to help.  It was too frustrating to just watch.  I turned him around, pushing his head down between her belly and back leg.  He butted the mare looking for he didn’t know what except that he wanted it.  How could he know?  He smelled the engorged bag then, and his urgency mounted.  Then his legs buckled, and dumped him back in the straw.  But right away he was up again, butting, nosing, licking.  His mouth was agog, his tongue reaching in a grim grotesquerie of want.  He found the teat, curled his tongue around it and sucked.  He drew it in—in—deep into his hungry mouth and psyche.  The full warm teat filled him with a sweetness too beautiful and complete for expression.  Had he words, they would have been inadequate.

But he wasn’t worried about expressing himself, only drawing into himself this authentic source.  Suck and swallow.  Suck and swallow.  Mother reached around nosing the spindly-legged colt.  She lashed her tail, swirling it about his body, chasing away all distractions from her enjoyment of their moment of triumph.  Santiago wiggled his little bushy black tail.

That’s what I named him as I squatted there in the straw, watching him mount his valiant assault on the life he had committed to, and fought for, and won.  Santiago, a battle cry used by warring Spaniards in the decisive battle that freed Spain from the Moorish conquest, was an appropriate name for the fighter son of Silhouetta and Matias.

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The Monday Morning Writers Group might appreciate knowing what is going on in my strange essay, “Gnarly Knowing”.  (Please see January 15, 2012 posting.)  That’s reasonable and understandable.  When I first presented this piece to the group, my last resounding words were met with a silence so dense I could have sliced it and served it on a plate.  I hadn’t intended for us to actually enter the Cave of Silence.  The group sat in shocked stillness, surreptitiously glancing around the table to share the question on their faces: Is this woman nuts?  Fair question.

Writers are familiar with the concept of “point of view”.  The writing flows from a defined vantage point: If “I” am telling the story it becomes much more intimate than if “He” is telling it.  An “Omniscient” viewpoint knows all and can tell all.  “Gnarly Knowing” postulates and demonstrates a new viewpoint wherein metaphor tells the story.

Inside the Cave of Silence, the metaphors assemble.  They wait for inevitable visits from the writer who in unguarded moments of dream or meditation or bouts of solitude come to visit and explore.  They exist for a single noble purpose: they express raw truth.

I can only describe my cave since it is impossible for me to enter any other, but it is reasonable to assume that what I experience is available to others.  My many years of asking “why” and “why not” have taught me that no feeling or idea is self proprietary.  Any insights I ever achieved had already been expressed by others quicker and smarter.  But what I am speaking of here is a personal cave, personal to me and what the flow of my conscious thought has carved out of the rock of my own reality.  See?  We have already entered the cave.  Every concept is quickened by metaphors that hang around waiting for some nascent thought to pass by and press them into service.

My cave itself is a homey place.  How could it be other, carved as it was in my own dark subterranean mystery, growing from ooze, to seep, to stream, to mighty river of expression.  As roiling torrent breaks out into light and air, both reader and writer take a shared breath.  We have come through this adventure together, buoyed by a joined trust, moved by a poet’s vision, affirmed by the resonance of reader and writer, embodied by the many metaphors lurking like bats hanging from the dripping arches of my cave.  Such a moist place breeds life.  Where there is life there is the capacity for thought, however rudimentary.  Even the lowly snail carries in its unique nerve cell array a microcosm of the mechanism that produced the Harvard Classics.

In my cave, I am caught between microcosm and macrocosm, in my own personal chasm.  I can vision infinity in either direction, but I rail at being stuck in my spot in this hierarchy of fractal branching.  The universe isn’t fair; why must I be so imprisoned?  Why me?  I am put in my place by the limitations of my being.  Who am I?  A being called human crouched before a computer screen, on a planet circling a minor star, in a galaxy that spirals about a black hole somewhere in a roiling universe of suns; conversely and reflectively, I am a conglomeration of systems and organs and cells and molecules and the atoms, electrons, neutrons, quarks and bosons they comprise, in an ever-diminishing expression of the incipient reality we call energy.  I will be imprisoned here until some form of life discovers the answer to the ultimate questions: who, what, when, where, why are we?  Are there other dimensions, out of time, out of mind, or in a Twilight Zone inhabited only by metaphor?  Until that is clarified, perhaps poetry dreamed in the Silent Cave is the only consolation.

“Gnarly Knowing” was conceived in my cave out of raw passion impregnated by seeds of raw truth.  My description of what happens in that cave carries the use of metaphor to absurdity.  I’m hoping that exercise will clarify what I was trying to do.  If it still doesn’t make sense, it might be useful to switch viewpoints, to wit:

Dorothy J. Martin, aspiring writer, had a dream.  When her alarm went off, she pressed snooze, lay abed and thought it through.  It was fascinating and deserved to be recorded.  She rose, washed teeth, and showered.  Then she sat at the computer and realized she had forgotten the dream entire.  It was gone.

Then she decided that the wisdom carried by the symbolism of the dream must have already become part of her integrated matrix of understanding during REM processing.  This self-serving rationalization made her feel better, so she decided to write a poem about it, to have faith in her basic thought process, and to spend the rest of her life enjoying the craft of writing.

But hedging her bets, she resolved on future awakenings to write first and wash later.

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What the world needs is a new Wonder-Woman.  Her name will be Grambo.  The challenge is to create a superhero based, not on a mild-mannered male with a penchant for lurking in telephone booths, but on a gloriously mature female of the species, who is coincidentally mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother,  still catching and counting.

Once a geeky kid, now an old lady who still gets off on learning, she at last fit’s together the collective insights of a lifetime into her very own Theory of Everything.  Making a place for herself in traditional science and engineering seems finally irrelevant to her understanding of what’s what.  As she is presented with heroic challenges, she meets them with passion, intuition, and grace.  Long a trail-breaker in fields of male endeavor, turning over every rock and cow pie, questioning absolutely everything, she confronts the strictures of psychological assessment, trying to give delusions of grandeur a good name.  Always ahead of her time, she struggles with peer derision, self-doubt, and the tyranny of the normal.  She obviously has something interesting going on.

Slowly it becomes clear that it is simply what every ovarian human has in her personal tool-chestShe is fully female.  She celebrates using both sides of her brain that dance a consistent do-si-do, her corpus callosum providing a robust bridge for cross-talk.  She decides to prove that women, far from being the weaker sex, are in many ways the stronger.  Having spent nearly a lifetime wishing she were good enough, she discovers that she and her sisters are actually on the path to becoming the wise ones.  Armed with this empowerment, she leads women to redeem the men in their lives as they, finally in true partnership, move the species toward a new way to live in beauty and balance.

Along the way, she will experience all the afflictions of age and meet them with humor, wisdom, and courage.  Joint replacements will be greeted as blessings of technology, leading to bionic inevitability.  When she finally must accept a wheelchair, it will be a jet-powered one that she rides like a wheeled stallion and leaps tall buildings leaving a con-trail of haiku verse. Afflicted with the dementia of age, she in a last gasp of creativity will write a computer program that extends her viable intellect far into a functioning future of otherwise Q-signified oblivion. Death is anticipated and accepted.  She pre-writes her own obituary and designs a funerary event for the ages, wherein family is cherished, consoled, and challenged, and her grand adventure is memorialized, tongue having been stuck in cheek and fire having been stoked in belly.

This should be good for a long run of sequelae and will surely be snapped up by Paramount for a run of feature films, complete with action figures, toys, and video game franchises.  Grambo will at long last rest in peace, but not before she haunts several generations of progeny with reminders to follow Nike’s winning slogan; “Just Do It”.

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As wishes turn into kisses

And longings turn softly to sighs,

The lust in me stirs and remembers

How tender, how sweet were our cries.

* * *

As our lips touch gently and linger,

While our eyes meet and shimmer and shine,

The earth stops and waits in its turning

                                         As our hands and our hearts intertwine.



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Dante’s Wedding Cake

Purloining the opening thought from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, “In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood.”  A raven, his talons clutching my shoulder, reared, wings a-flap, and stretched his neck the better to swallow my eye, which he had neatly plucked from its socket.  He cawed roughly, a challenge, goading me to see the truth now visible in the absence of the eye.

I grimaced, suddenly sensing the pain that seared the empty socket, burning a path of fire down the severed optic nerve and into the dark core of visual cortex.  I accepted the pain as my truth and settled into an understanding that decision granted.  I looked about, awed.  The trees of the wood stirred, leaves whispering secrets, fingered branches etching questions across the gray slate of sky.  Except for the presumptuous bird, I stood alone, perched a-top a circular, layered wedding cake iced slick and black with molten tar, each level known and named in the hollow eyes of waiting gargoyles.  I knew this place and wept.

The raven flew, leaving me alone to find my way.  Instinctively I sought the source, the foundation of all that was to follow.  I descended layer by layer finally standing, both feet firmly planted on the base, the beginning.

The platter was flat, flat as the plains of central Texas, down-home familiar as the stands of live oak gathered beside the creek, the screaming locusts, prickly pears blooming pink and yellow, nestled amid swaths of bluebonnets reflecting the blue of an even bluer sky.  Conestoga’s brimming the horizon, riding the waves of a rolling sea of prairie, following any sunset to somewhere better than Severy, Kansas.  The Comanches hiding in the brush along the creek, puzzled and afraid of the strangely pale new people who had built their shelter too close to the spring, fouling its ancient waters.  The wars.  The arduous treks into Ft. Worth, livestock and children in tow, fleeing the “trepidations of the savages.

* * *

There is Alma Reynolds, my Great-great-greatgrandmother, a young and pretty woman in spite of the Celtic freckles bridging her nose.  She invited scandal by riding astride her handsome chestnut walker all the way from Tennessee, disdaining a softer wagon berth with the women and children.  There too, is Great-great-grandfather, James Giles Reynolds dashing out of the tent, a temporary shelter for the U.S. Land Office, the precious homestead contract smoothly tucked into his vest.  He jumps his roan with a whoop and a slap on the rump.  He reins the horse toward camp, kicking it into a fierce gallop, beard flying, cheeks flushed pink, eager to celebrate his news.  He is alive, real, like I am.  Did he, too, awake in the middle of the road of his life?  And if so, what did he see?  It is subtle, this shift in sight, more a tasting than a seeing, a sensing of things not seen.

* * *

Centered on the platter, the cake’s largest bottom layer tells of the Texas farm country north of Ft. Worth, home to my parents.  My mother, Mary Opal, was fifth of eight children born to Mary Frances Walker and George Washington Tyson, she a bearer of children, he a preacher, seller of Watkins Products and occasional farmer of a few played-out acres near Decatur.  George believed in a God of retribution about whom he preached on a Sunday and whose vengeance he administered as the occasion arose.  He applied the strop liberally, especially to his daughter’s supple flanks, most vehemently when they were visited with the curse, a promise of harlotry to come.

Mary Opal gazed out the kitchen door, past the well house, and watched a lazy chicken hawk circle the air rising in waves of heat over the calf pasture.  She was supposed to be drying the dishes.  She was always supposed to be doing something; never was there a time to think, to dream, and to wonder.  As she wiped the plate she sang in a clear soprano,

“Somewhere the sun is shining,
Somewhere a songbird dwells.
Hush now my sad repining,
God lives and all is well.
Somewhere, somewhere,
Beautiful isle of somewhere……”

“Opa-a-al!” Mary Frances called, her voice drawing the name out and up, her eyes squinting at the newest row of stitches criss-crossing the taut patchwork.  She straightened her shoulders, adjusting the angle of the quilting frame and reached for a new length of cotton.  “Go and turn on the water for Dad’s new horse.  He could die of this heat.  Come on, Opal!  Now!  Do it right now! You hear?”

“Yes, Mama,” Mary Opal sighed and started outside, pitching the towel at the dish pan.  She walked out onto the low covered porch where the morning’s milking cooled under wet cloths.  Flies buzzed urgently, excited by the sweet, creamy smell.  Out in the side yard she spied little G.W. digging for doodle bugs, stirring the concave cone of sand with a twig until the bug, goaded to exasperation, gave away his position by kicking up a tiny pouf of sand.  The boy was five now, his birthday only just last week, and it occurred to her that he was old enough to do some work.  “Jimmy”, she whispered, squatting down beside him to peek into the doodle-bug hole.  “I want you to go water that horse.  Just turn on the spigot.  Wait ’til the trough is full up, and then turn it back off.”

“Naw,” he grunted.  “I’m too little.  Besides, Ma said for you to water ‘im.

“Aw come on, Jimmy, I’ll save you a whole spoonful when I make the cake for supper, an’ you git the bowl too.  It’s gonna be lemon, your favorite.  Go on now!  You know you’re gettin’ to be a big boy!”  She smiled, satisfied at evading a piece of work, watching as the boy hiked up his knickers and headed for the barn lot, kicking anthills along the way.  But her smile changed to a rictus of terror as screams woke the sleepy farmstead.  As Jimmie leaned through the fence reaching for the water valve, the horse sank his incisors deep into the boy’s chin, screaming and shaking his head.  Blood mixed with foamy spittle flew in all directions.

Mary Frances came running, her raised skirts flying behind, outraged at the horse, at God for allowing bad things to happen to His people, and most of all at Mary Opal, for her disobedience.  She scooped up the screaming child, blood pouring from his mangled chin, white bone visible through the torn flesh.  She clutched him to her breast, choking as she spat out her words like a curse.  “Opal, you are evil!  Do you hear?  Evil!  The devil will punish you for this.  It’s your fault!”

Mary Opal stopped breathing.  Time stopped dead in its tracks.  It must have resumed, for later she watched her father shoot the big horse square between the eyes as it stood panting, legs splayed out like a spindly colt, cords of foamy spit streaming from its mouth.  The great head jerked from the bullet, its’ weight bowing the thick neck.  The giant draft horse gave one massive shudder and fell as all four legs buckled as one.   The beast groaned and lay on its’ side twitching.  Mary Opal blanched as the wave of sound slammed her chest, the noise piercing her ears.  “Go get my saw,” George snapped at C.J., his eldest, who had come running when he heard the commotion.  Working together in a grim cooperation, the two men sawed off the head and wrapped it in burlap for the trip to Decatur, the grisly trophy necessary to determine if the horse was rabid.

Mary Opal prayed that God would take her to Heaven, knowing with dismal certainty that she could not live beyond this day.  But God chose not to hear her prayer, no doubt because of her evil ways, and she lived to witness little G.W.’s pain as he was taken again and again to the city for rabies shots, his belly swollen, red, angry with the repeated sticks from the great needles, the life-saving serum heavy and thick.  She listened as her father described her disobedience from the place of his power, high in the pulpit.  After the service, she read the condemnation of family and neighbors in their quickly averted eyes.  She imagined her soul rising like strands of morning mist into the loving arms of a forgiving Jesus.  Many years later she would know the love of a real flesh and blood man but lose him to a world larger than her understanding.

* * *

My father’s parents lived on a farm, 340 acres west of Ft. Worth near the town of Azle, a parcel of the land originally homesteaded by James Giles Reynolds and successfully defended against the territorial imperative of the Comanches.  Minnie Mae Reynolds and Harold Allen Densmore Martin lived quiet balanced lives in an added-onto log house built along lower Ash creek, a hundred yards or so south of a spring that was reputed never to go dry.  Minnie loved the weight of history tying the heavily chinked log portion of the house to the land, this very land that was her home.

Harry, a secondary school diplomate, finish carpenter, and gentleman farmer, loved the smell of progress and hankered to go to California where his brother had migrated, sending back tales of endless summers and universal abundance.  But Minnie Mae dug in her shapely heels and refused even to discuss leaving this place where she belonged.  Harry savored vicariously his son’s adventures, details gleaned from occasional letters and even more occasional telephone communication.

Kelsey, a quiet sensitive boy turned man, had earned a name for himself as Azle’s home-grown genius.  He enjoyed drawing and painting, sang baritone and played the pianoforte.  He wrote poetry to acknowledge the feelings a man must never directly express and put great store by things spiritual.  His plan was to become a Methodist minister, but he showed such aptitude for mathematics, along with an uncanny mechanical and electrical creativity, that he was eventually lured into the defense industry as part of Raytheon’s piece of the Manhattan Project.  He invented the actuation mechanism for the Hiroshima bomb that assured it would explode at the precise elevation for maximum kill, but he refused to discuss it no matter who was doing the asking.

His marriage to my mother, Mary, was part of a religious and romantic world view that faded after his involvement in the war effort.  Mary, sensing his emotional withdrawal, and forced to accept his very physical desertion, shattered into pieces of herself.  Kelsey, ever non-confrontational, quietly departed, abandoning me, his own beloved daughter, to her care.

Daddy was fond of his children, both me and the half-siblings that followed.  His gentle acceptance, after he came back into my life when I was fifteen, helped me to heal from my mother’s abuse and his own desertion.  I began the long hard job, still underway, of discovering myself as a viable human.

* * *

The second layer of the cake, kaleidoscopic glimpses of my own beginnings, saw me born to ride the crazy roller-coaster of my mother’s moods, her fellow traveler on the rails of her shrieking mania and mewling depression.  The only constant was drama, as she threw herself with vigor into any and all projects, withdrawing with an opposite but equal intensity when her inner ballast shifted.

She organized the Glad Girls Glee Club, directing and accompanying a singing group of young neighborhood girls in performances around Ft. Worth. The little ladies sang wearing long dresses, pearls and white gloves, me tagging along, passed from lap to lap, pumped up with my notoriety as mascot.  She planned and executed complex multi-media projects for my entertainment and edification, for example, photographing my hoard of dolls, each one named and mentioned ekphrastically in a poem to accompany the picture.  She memorialized many of my life passages in verse,

“I have a dear, dear teacher,
Who means so much to me,
And what I’ll do without her
Is more than I can see.
I want to go to second grade,
For it’s the proper thing to do,
But teachers like Miss. Chater,
I know there are but few.
And so, My dear Miss. Chater,
I know that we must part,
But please be sure to know,
You’ll be always in my heart.”

Mother taught me to love music, to sing before an audience, to earn my place at the center of any and all attention.  On Halloween, stalking the neighborhood for treats, she taught me to recite,

Hello! Hello!
I’m out to have some fun,
But never fear,
I’m here to cheer.
There’ll be no destruction.

That bagged me more than my share of goodies.  Even more important, from her I learned to enter the fantastic realities found in books and to express the music of my heart in poetry.  She carefully listened to and recorded my first poem, composed during my fourth year.  She accorded it a literary significance that I readily accepted as its’ due.

I will build little bird nests.
I will build a lot of them.
Little birds will find them.
Little birds will like them
Little birds will live in them.

During the summer that I was nine, my dad left us.  It was a time when a heavy paranoia seemed to overlay her more typical affect.   I wrote a poem for her, an attempt to reassure her, and maybe myself as well, that I could make things better.  She had good reason to be behaving strangely:  Daddy had disappeared.  Bank accounts were cleaned out.  A fire had destroyed all of our stored basement “treasure”, and we were preparing to be evicted.

I’m a little sunbeam
Not so very tall.
I want to make you happy
Which is not hard at all.

Just mind you and respect you
Each minute of the day
And I will make you happy
With everything I say.

For I love you and I trust you
And I know that you love me,
And I will make you happy.
You just wait and see!

It was in the autumn of that dreadful year, that my father had left my mother and me, but he appeared at our door on Christmas Eve.  He was dragging an enormous fir tree behind him, much taller than our ceiling.  Mother cracked opened the door, refusing to let him in, her voice breaking as she hissed, “How could you be so stupid?  That tree won’t fit in here!  Take it away!”

“But it’s for Dottie.  She’s got to have a tree for Christmas,” he pleaded.

“I don’t care who it’s for!” she shrieked, now past caring if the neighbors should hear.  “You don’t love Dottie or you wouldn’t have left us here with no food or money.  Go away!  I don’t ever want to see you again!”

My father shrank, jaws clenched, tears plying salty rivulets down his cheeks.  Then he bent and broke off a branch, handing it to my mother.  “Please take this for her,” he said and turned away, dragging the once perfect tree down the front steps and out of my Christmastide.

Mother and I watched him drive away, quietly falling snowflakes softening the glow of the Packard’s receding tail-lights until they were no more.  She pressed the branch into an urn and positioned it with a cruel irony where our holiday tree had in past years stood resplendent.  I kneeled and stroked the pathetic, solitary branch, hugging it to my chest, and sobbing.  Mother left me to my grief, but of course she borrowed it for a poem:

“In her arms she held the sprig of green
As though calla lily rare
Embraced in love and mourned in loss
Her heart knew much to bear.”

I felt icy fingers of resentment slip into my mind to ask what I didn’t dare formulate as words, “Why can’t I have privacy for my grief?  It is, after all, mine and not yours.”  But I quickly disclaimed the ugly concepts, choosing others more dutiful with which to feel a proper gratitude for the poem.  Passing years taught me that my mother, too, had her very own grief to bear.  I missed my father terribly but was glad that he was safely removed from our pain.

One night Mommy had roughly awakened me and dragged me into the bathroom where Daddy was seated, tugging groggily at his lowered pajama bottoms, attempting to cover himself.  He, too, was sleepy but was evidently sick as well.  “I want you to know just how bad your father smells,” Mommy spoke, jaw tense, her face blotched with anger.  “Smell him!  He’s sickening!  He makes me want to vomit!”  I was embarrassed for him, and was shamed by my mother’s deficiency of grace, a concept for which I had no verbiage, but a completely adequate vocabulary of feelings.

The end of this period is marked by my mother’s hospitalization which followed an eventful period of paranoia, during which she flushed down the toilet many casseroles donated by concerned neighbors. She feared the gifts were poisoned.  A welder, attempting to remove a no-longer-utilized oil tank from our basement, started a fire that destroyed all the precious plunder stored there.  Mommy decided that it was the will of God to punish our sins because she saw “plain as day” the word “Will” etched in soot on the basement door.  My Aunt Judy was sent for.  She rescued me, and I was saved.  Driving cross country from Boston to Dallas with Judy and her husband, Wesson, I was overwhelmed by an intense optimism.  When Judy lamented the death of a still-glowing lightning bug that had splatted our speeding windshield, I quipped, “Well, at least he died with his light on!”

* * *

The cake’s next layer harbored the confusion of my sojourn in the home of my Aunt Judy, whom I adored, and Wesson, her fat, cigar chewing, and aggressively unfriendly husband.  Judy, a beautiful, statuesque, and successful purveyor of upscale ladies ready-to-wear, provided a luxurious standard of living for herself, for Wesson and for me, while Wesson dabbled at various sales and blue-collar jobs.  He immediately pegged me as dangerous, noting the seriousness with which Judy undertook her task as guardian ad litem.  Forgetting that children grow vigorously, that first season she bought thirty-two Bobbie Brooks blouses for me while attending a trade show.   She seemed to be delighted by this opportunity finally to have a child, even one not of her own blood and belly.

Wesson was a horse’s derrière of a different color.  He was clever to never accost me when Aunt Judy could hear.  “You think you’re something special, Little Miss Priss,” he would sneer.  “Mommy’s sweet little thing!  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”  Of course I hated him.  This was a new uncomplicated kind of hate.  It was sweet to taste its purity, unlike the bittersweet complexity of the love/hate I felt for my mother.  Wesson arose early, and disdaining the civility of robe or dressing gown, he swaggered fatly in his boxer shorts, his long, soft, pink thing flapping below.  I saw him, and he knew I saw him, so expose himself to me, a repeated act at once lascivious and aggressive.  Whenever, at my request, Aunt Judy prompted him to adjust his pants, he feigned a shocked surprise, modesty affronted that I should have noticed.

Wesson enjoyed manipulating me to do things that inspired terror.  Once each year at the Texas State Fair I was required to ride the big roller coaster, always in the lead car, wedged in between Judy and the press of Wesson’s sweaty bulk.  “You have to ride it just one time,” he crowed.  “It’s good for you.  Keeps you from being a namby-pamby.  Come on.  Let’s get it over with.”  And afterward, “Now was that so bad?  You should listen to your old Uncle Wesson!”  He insisted that I climb the giant pecan tree, whose luxuriant limbs shaded our backyard.  He cut and installed wooden rungs to provide purchase for my slippery tennis shoes on the featureless lower trunk.

Victory over the tree won for me a new confidence, and I climbed it often until I was permanently grounded due to the onset of my menses.  At the first sight of blood, Judy declared me a woman, bought me a training bra and instructed Wesson to stop trying to make me into a tomboy.   That was his cue to begin dropping suggestive references to my tentatively burgeoning breasts.   I cringed, slumped, hugged my books, and walked lightly, a parody of the invisible.

Succumbing to Wesson’s nagging, Judy several times put me on an airplane, destination pinned to my blouse, and sent me and my suitcase to live with my mother in her Boston rooming house.  The experiment always ended badly, local authorities indignant, and I was returned to the comfort and relative security of Judy’s Dallas home, not a bad arrangement if I could steer clear of Dear Uncle Wesson.

* * *

The next layer of the cake is Aunt Judy’s debilitating illness and my chagrin at being sent away to boarding school, resentful that my exile spelled victory for Wesson.  It was a private Catholic school where, now thirteen and exhibiting a penchant for questioning authority, I was sure to encounter corrective discipline.  But at St. Joseph’s Academy I found only a firm constancy quickly recognized as love.

The nuns, identical black and white starched penguins, patiently endured my exchange of salt and sugar in their private refectory, and affected a studied silence when I unrolled the toilet tissue from Mother Superior’s lavatory, down the hall and through the high school classrooms.  They even withheld comment on my dragging the bubble gum machine from its place in the courtyard and installing it in the nun’s chapel between the altar and the votive light dispenser.  I finally ran out of energy for pranks and settled into a pleasant and well-ordered life as boarding school student.

The nuns became individual friends and mentors, their own distinct personalities overcoming the anonymity of the veil.  I especially loved my seventh grade teacher, Sister Rose Marie, doing my very best to please her.  She commented favorably on my advanced vocabulary, so I bought a pocket notebook in which to record new and even more resplendent words to be used conspicuously at every opportunity.  She was a favorite of many of the students.  At recess we clustered about her like puppies, vying for a place beside her on the big double swing glider.

One beautiful spring morning, happily occupying one of the favored spots on either side of her, I hugged her deliciously fat arm, burrowing my face into its warmth, as we all rocked and sang.  Suddenly she jumped up, shook her arm free and barked, “Leave me alone!  Let go of me!”  She ran sobbing into the building, long black veil riding the turbulence of her wake.

I was mortally embarrassed,  sure I must have done some heinous thing to have so upset her.  I hid the rest of the day in the attic of the convent, my refuge discovered finally by Mother Superior.  “Don’t be afraid, my dear, ” she cooed, proffering her smile, which never failed to light up her wrinkled face.  “I’m so glad to have found you.  We have looked simply everywhere.  Sister told me what happened, and it wasn’t your fault.  Sister Rose Marie was just feeling sad because she will never be able to have a daughter of her own.  She does love you, you know.”

I wept then, both sad and happy, for Sister Rose Marie’s loneliness, and for the gift of Mother Superior’s kindness. I observed the world to be a fearsome place, tenderness rare and exceeding precious.  Mother Superior took my hand, gave it a squeeze, and retracing her steps through the shadowy, spider web draped loft, she led me out to join the others.

* * *

The layers piled upward, each level a repository of feelings disavowed, dumb struck orphans of the heart.  One guards the anguish of my too-young first marriage, ending in the cold finality of divorce.  One treasures the life of my small daughter cut short on a West Virginia byway.  Another celebrates the rough beauty of my three sons and the relationships that gave them life, the kind and gentle stand-in fathers who guided them to a validation of themselves as men.  Still another traces my career as student and later as engineer in aerospace, self consciously echoing the perceived accomplishments of father, a pathetic redundancy, the hollow victory of his goals achieved yet once again.

* * *

Piled still higher, a lovely light-filled layer chronicles Fahrenheit 451, my bookstore, coffeehouse, and arts forum, as I begin finally to chart the course of my own life in a career inspired of my own passion.  I listened to my heart, making mistakes and suffering in consequence, but satisfied that they were my failures, compost for the garden of my own soul.

* * *

On top of the cake once again, this time seeing consciously the choices made, acknowledging all of the feelings, the lovely and the shameful, embracing the poignant humanity of those hated as well as those loved, I savor peace.

Now a shadow crosses my sight, portending the raven’s return.  Excited, he climbs and dives, climbs and dives, swooping again and again across my gaze, thwacking my head with his pinions at every pass.  “Look!”  His scream slices the air.  “Look!  Look!”

I look, and the world I view is lit by rainbow light.   The sky is the endless blue of bluebonnet meadows and my baby’s eyes.  Once murky meadows glow, sunlight dappling the gentle greens of springtime’s past and springtime’s yet to come.  The cake, no longer iced with tar, titters with the laughter of a million remembered birthday’s, its crystal icing glowing pink and green and white and yellow, sugary rose-buds sparkling in every hue, nestled sweetly where before were only gargoyle glares following me with empty eyes.

The metaphor is now complete.  I stand where I belong, at the apex of the tel my living has laid down, its strata a toast and testament “To Life!”  I am the bride!  Like Dante, I stand alone, yet not alone, at the top of this mythic wedding cake in the middle of the road of my life.  My groom, that part of self I had denied, stands at my side.  Hands of friendship, real and strong, reach for me, and I reach back.



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This represents a dream entire, set down honestly and without augmentation or interpretation.  It amazes me to learn what passes through a nighttime brain quietly at peace in sleep.

* * *

The dream began as a large convocation of women.  There were seats enough for all, even one left for me.  I approached its hard emptiness with trepidation, not sure it could really be mine.  Several women beckoned, assuring me that it was for me and I was for it.  I felt much better.  A man urged me forward, pressing a round object into my hand.  I opened my fingers and gaped at a gold coin gleaming with a newly-minted shine.  It too was really for me, and I grasped it as if it meant absolutely everything.

No sooner had I taken my seat but the mass of women began to murmur among themselves.  The whispering assumed a life of its own, moving in waves throughout the assemblage.  It lulled and soothed me as I assumed it did everyone in the quiet crowd.  I breathed deeply, relaxed, and waited.  This must have been somewhere in Asia, for the women  were wrapped in loose flowing garments but they didn’t cover their faces and hair.  Interspersed among the nondescript patterned wraps, was an entire spectrum of pastel satins.  These were each decorated with complex patterns formed by stitched areas that enclosed subtle puffed strands of down, slightly elevated from the base surface of satin.  I appreciated the beauty and nuance of the designs.  They were non-representational though conceptual in the abstract, and they spoke to me, as they must have to any with eyes to see and admire them.  One by one, the satin attired women rose and progressed toward the exit doors.  One by one they passed through and out of sight.  They moved slowly, not looking back.  I watched and wondered what this meant to me, to each and to all of us.

The last woman moved toward the portal.  Unlike her sisters she sat, a graceful form riding a long square beam.  It appeared to be approximately 2” x 2” x 20 feet in length.  It was made of wood but responded to the woman’s weight as if demonstrating the rigidity of steel.  There was no bending, no sagging.  Two young males dressed only in loin wraps carried the beam bearing its load at each end.  The woman sat gracefully, one hip hitched over the beam, her ankles crossed modestly.  I tried to assess her age, but she had none, her bearing appearing ageless.  She sat, head up, shoulders back, each arm a graceful cascade flowing down to grasp the beam.  Her dress was a shimmer of white lace, the skirt drawn toward the ends of the beam so as to display the exquisite handiwork in unabashed splendor.  I looked at her face.  It was merely skull and translucent skin; a parchment overlay depicting all the expressions impressed on the face of a life completely lived.  This woman had fully inhabited the trail of her years.  She had lived each step in totality.  Even her raiment, once the same as her sisters, exquisite satin hieroglyphically textured, had been transformed into the living energy that moving relative to time universally creates.  Only essential structure remained, as lovely bones and the bare skeletal substrate of fabric, once satin, now preserved structurally as swaths of sentient lace.  The woman rode, proud and serene, and slowly passed from view to a place woven of her own desire and imagining.

I lifted my hand, a gesture of farewell and longing.

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All five black Andalusian stallions are lined up peaceably, noses in their feed buckets, while night shadows congeal in the barn lot.  I always tie them while they eat, each bucket hitched to one of the posts that support the stable roof overhang.  That keeps these beautiful bad boys eight feet apart, an effective separation.  While I wait, listening to contented munching, my hands dig deep into coat pockets, desperate for body heat.  The frigid air turns grunts and snorts into white ribbons of steam.  Matias, the senior stallion, raises his head and neighs, sliming wet feed onto frozen muck.  Farruco, the tallest at 16 hands, squeals and paws his bucket.  He’s finished and wants to be turned loose to make trouble.  Not tonight.  It’s too cold.  The sky is clear, stars bright, promising a plummeting temperature.  I waggle my toes, numb inside my boots, and yank off a glove.  I choose a lead equipped with a short length of chain that I thread, bare fingered, through one halter side ring, across the nose, to its opposite ring, assuring an extra degree of compliance.  Farucco is first, being the end horse closest to the barn door.  I release his tie and guide him toward his stall, giving him a pat and soft word of gentling.  Santiago, the two year old, is feeling frisky.  He nickers and tosses his mane.  Farruco begins to prance and crowd me, angling a return to the lineup to assert his dominance.  I yank the nose chain and urge him backward, but he is insistent.  Protocol is to turn him full circle in the direction he wants to go and lead him out of that turn toward a safer heading, but he’s too fast.  His massive chest backs me within kicking range of Matias, the stud next in line.  In a split second, Matias swivels, presents his powerful rump, and donkey kicks my thigh.  The impact of those rear hooves splays me on my back beneath the battling behemoths.  In the scuffle I have dropped the lead, and Farruco is free to attack Matias.  Stunned, I stare in slack-jawed reverence at the silhouette of barrel chests and slashing hooves dancing above me against a shimmering arch of stars.  Time slows to a quarter-horse saunter as I roll over and hug the ground. Then it’s a hound dog belly-crawl on knees and elbows to the barn door and a brief respite before limping back out to sort stallions.  Through my hot tears I can’t help but smile.  Those big guys were mighty sweet not to step on my head.  Tomorrow they get apples.  What is it about girls and horses?

_Dorothy Jeanette Martin

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