by Leonore Wilson
I remember how cold it was that Easter, a bitter cold that kept us in as if it were winter, but the sun was out; the sun was a big deception in the sky. We were all at dinner — picture the ham, mashed potatoes, dyed eggs, the jelly beans. Then the phone rang. My mother answered. The dispatcher said people saw a naked woman running through traffic, she was running like a scared doe in headlights. They couldn’t shout her down or weave her in. They asked us if we had seen her, that she was last spotted running into the open field in back of the house. The police wanted to know if they could come up to the ranch and find her. A naked girl? Or was it a woman? My mother said it didn’t matter, no we hadn’t seen her. Then my husband left the table as if he were a doctor and this was his call. He ran out of the house and so did our boys. I was left with my mother at the table. We were the women. The food like a big accident before us. We ate the ham, the salad, drank our milk in silence to the sirens.
My husband came back. He said something about her wearing only underwear, big panties, nothing fancy, and that she had lived in the field for three days. He said she was nothing to look at really. In fact she looked like a dog, dog-ugly. He asked if I would give her a sweatshirt, some pants. I went to the laundry room, picked out the pink ones I hated, the color of peonies. Later I saw her at a distance. They had her handcuffed. They were taking her down the mountain. It was starting to rain. She had her head down, the way Jesus had his head hung, ready for the crucifixion; she was that scrawny. I put my body in her body. She was wearing my clothes. My husband told me she kept telling the cops that she was a mother, that no mother should be treated with handcuffs, that she was no danger. The cop said she was covered with bruises, that her husband had beaten her and left her on the highway, that she wanted to die in the field where she first met him, her lover. The cop said she was on drugs and loony. He said she’d probably go back to her husband. That they always do. These strays, these losers.
That was ten years ago, but I still think of her. This woman, not the only inconsolable stray I’ve found on my rural road, in this paradise called Napa, this manna of land fluted by canyons, sharpened by cliffs. Wappo territory where wild irises bloom their white flags from the portholes of meadows. There’s been others. Other women. The woman with purple welts around her neck, scourged neck of the black and blue, weeping near her stalled U-Haul and the oversized drunken tattoo of a man. Or the woman whose husband drove his black sedan behind her as she walked the dotted line, the mean bumper of his souped-up car butting up against her like a bull. But it was she, the woman discovered on Easter, who remains in my center like the blue throat of the owl in the center of moonlight. She the vixen’s red breath coming out of the garden and into the pitch. She emerging from the earth-bed like Persephone released from Hades, but returning to Hades. She, the matted camellia, the numbed apostrophe of the killdeer stirred from the cinders. Who is she, whose handiwork? Whose heat did she trigger? What ownership? Who was she, that threadbare girl of skin and ribs, feeling invisible, that field witch? Did anyone ask her; what are you feeling, do you feel anything, as they cuffed her bare feet, stuffed her in back of that cop car? Was she bound and flogged before he, her lover, her spouse, tossed her out like rotten trash? Is there any way to explain her naked body? Her naked fingers? Her fallen legs collapsing under her like unplayed cards?
I think of her, of all the women I have found in my country, their shadows writhe within me. I who have stayed silent. They with their loosened hair, stained with soil and blood, drugged eyes glazed forever on the black chart of amnesia. There have been many in these hills, this valley. Wild, hard women. Endangered sisters. Their heaped colors suddenly gone ashen like the cloudiness that forms over winter blacktop. They who scratch themselves, who urinate, who stay in unspeakable loneliness, their feminine power routed backward like miles of barbwire. They are homeless cursed women, naughty women, the words stolen out of their teeth like bread. They who would rather choke than be vulgar.
How can I wrap my house in sleep thinking of them, thinking of her making a fire of wet wood, telling stories to herself, singing lullabies, nursing the tragedy of her sex. I pace the floor thinking of her. I poke my spade into the dry loam and think of her. I find her everywhere. I have learned her by heart. I have worn her close to my body. For she is my body. She is the foundling of the woods, the one slip of tongue, the liquid mist that burns off the highway as the new day forms.
I want to know who touched the match to her flesh, who left her blanketless in the frost as I stoked and blazed my stove. I know she was there in the twilight and thorns. I’ve felt her mouth on mine like a lump of bitter jelly all those times alcohol was fire on my breath. The times I starved myself with pills in my pocket, wanting love, wanting the brisk taste of airports and ferries, I’ve been her. The times I wanted the impermissible. I’ve been her. Discontent as a cormorant that pokes around the corpses of roses, wanting to be fractured, exiled under the floss of many petals, I’ve been her. Wanting to be seduced by that floral nard. Me, in the snowstorm of unimaginable longing while the hangman’s noose rose inside my chest, taunting, taunting. I too tried on death too many times. I who wore my own bruises like badges around my jaw. I of steely posture.
I lowered myself in the chaparral, afraid, my breasts full of milk, my hair disheveled. I thought I could stand betrayal, that I could spill myself like purple vetch, like legend down the lush gametrails into drink. What soothed me? Sometimes mint in the mouth, sometimes the pearl-gray mist. I wanted to be like my ancestors. I wanted to be strong as shattered rock, as basalt mortars. I didn’t think it right that a woman go off like a kettle full boil. But I was proud and half-blind. I was a stuttering tadpole. A spectacle. An odd empty thing.
I was a master of nothing. I wrestled with the serpent inside me, the female totem of melancholy. Me with my teacups and miniature cakes. I sucked in my midnights, my howls and my whelps. Why? How many dead girls like me smelled of old lunatic lies?
My sentence was mine: my well-piped breeding, my pilgrim dreams. Guardian of chandeliers, when my heart was always squawking like an interior swan.
Be damned the well-scrubbed house, the family snapshots. Be damned the flowers of Hell, the ostracized penance, the lowermost regions, Lethe’s spell where Eurydice wastes away with Persephone. Be damned if the dark snake of Eden flew out of my mouth. I want the Easter woman at my table, I want her story. I want to take her groggy hand, lead her away from the fettered ring, the life of sacrifice, of thick-scented curses. My tongue dips into the chewed meat of thistled honey when I say this. Mothering is the dilation of feathers. Forget the flower-pressed face concealing its failures, bleeding its kindness like a parasite. Inside our smile is the knife-grind, the winged lion. What abscesses in our flesh — not our humiliation, nor our quarrel, but our rising.
About the author
Leonore Wilson is the mother of three sons in their early twenties. Her husband is a scientist. She lives in the wilds of Northern California. Like it or not, she comes from generations of rugged females keeping nature both fertile and sacred. She has won awards as well as fellowships for her work and has published in Poets Against the War, Madison Review, Sing Heavenly Muse, Rattle, Quarterly West, Third Coast, Pedestal, Laurel Review, Pif, DMQ Review, and Unlikely Stories.