Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence. Jorge Luis Borges
California. December 1967.
When the woman smiled, the kindly old soul shrank back with a gasp and hid her face. I shifted on my feet until she was safely behind my shoulder, moving so quickly that the women’s plaster grin cracked for a split second. I looked steadily beyond her without blinking. My patience was growing thinner as I measured each tick of the large clock behind her desk. The clock was the only thing on the wall worth looking at, although it was nowhere as beautiful as the exquisite one whose machinery glided around under a glass dome, graceful as the wind on the frozen waters of a winter’s lake somewhere far from her. The quiet air of that imagined lake soothed my feverish mood as I waited for this inanely dressed woman to speak.
I knew that whatever she would say would be a bland as the dress she wore—a sheath, as was advertised in the stacks of useless magazine my father’s wife collected. As far as I was concerned, these sheathes were nothing more than cloth badly sewn into a paper bag. I felt the kindly old soul grimace as the glasses called cat’s eyes trembled with each word that cawed out of the woman’s mouth. I am so happy to welcome you to our school! You are the first colored student we shall have!
Her mouth smiled, but her eyes frowned. As sure as I knew today was Wednesday, I knew she was lying. And, according to the calendar hanging under the clock, its blue letters, red lines, and the flag of the United States of America leaning crookedly in the corner of glaringly bright white paper, it was Wednesday. Not that I needed a calendar to tell me what day today was. I had been marking off the days since the letter had arrived in the middle of the semester. We are pleased to inform you that your child has been selected to attend…
The margins of my diary soon filled with the symbols from Miss Marsha’s book, as I carefully recorded each card I had drawn on each day since the letter had come. The Three of swords. Heartbreaking News. The Five of Swords. Conflicts. Disagreements. The Seven of Swords. Deception. Lies. The Nine of Swords. Anxiety. Fear. Worry. The Ten of Swords. Loss. Painful endings. The Moon. Perilous times. Illusions. Danger. The Tower. Catastrophic change. Chaos. Upheaval. The Devil. Entrapment. A situation from which there is no escape. A road leading nowhere. But, foreboding at the cards had been, I was glad for their guidance, as I now could sit calmly and ignore this woman—whose soul was so parched dry, and whose heart lacked the knowledge which could have taught her that, in some cultures, baring one’s teeth was considered threatening.
Her squawks that were meant to pass for human words got caught in the window screen and squealed to be set free. I felt the kindly old soul peeking out from behind my shoulder, shaking her head in pity as each pitiful sound was ground to dust by the wind. The clock ticked along wearily on its treadmill. Today was Wednesday. I had been born on a Wednesday. Wednesday’s child is full of woe. But, today’s date was also the 20th. The last day of school before the Christmas holidays began. The day white people called Yule, but did not know the meaning of—the day when the Winter Solstice begins, the shortest day of the year, the day on which, as Papa Earl had taught me, the sun send light into the place of the ancients and lights up the dark night of the soul. We can draw light into dark times if we try, he had said as I sat straining through tears to see the waning moon. Now, in this sterile room of formica, lineoleum, and pea soup green walls, I wondered why the sun could not pierce the haze of disinfectant fumes that drifted in from the hallway.
Why had this woman closed the door? And what was she going on about? Why did she have only a few books on the steel shelves stacked along one wall? I watched out the corner of my eye as the kindly old soul perused the shelves, then turned and looked quizzically at me. Policies and Procedures for the Scholl Year 1967-1968. Supreme Court 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98L. Ed. 873 (1954), School District Integration Plan 1967-1968, Civil Right Act 1964 (28 U.S.Ca. 1447), School District Emergency Procedures 1967-1967, What to Do in Case of an Earthquake. I stifled a smile when the kindly old soul giggled at that last title and said, bend over and kiss your behind goodbye. Then I pondered why the only books on that shelf were laws and policies and procedures. Had I, I wondered, been sent to jail, instead of school today. Wednesday’s child is full of woe.
This was the first day, in my entire life, that I had not walked to school. Instead, I had boarded a bus whose driver waved frantically as he approached, urging me to jump on when he barely came to a stop. Papa Earl nodded quietly to me when the driver careened toward the curb. The saddest day of your future will be no worse than the happiest day of your past, if you want it to be, he said. I took the kindly old soul’s hand and boarded the bus and we looked back until all that was left of him was a vague shape, outlined by the smoke from his cigarette, glowing in the dust the bus churned up as it sped off.
The kindly old soul and I were the only riders. The driver bobbed his head nervously at me and watched in the rearview mirror as I carefully chose a seat in the very last row at the back. I knew he would not bother to turn around and see me sprinkle salt on the squeaky-clean aisle and across the leatherette seat, then made it my duty to not look out the window as the bus carried me across town on freeways so wide and long they seemed to have no purpose or destination.
The kindly old soul stared out the window until the glare of the sun on the tarmac made her head reel. Then she began to fidget. I put my arm around her and shook my head. Don’t look out there. Close your eyes. Think of trees. Be still. I waited for her to breathe calmly then began reciting the few lines of poetry I could remember to silence the din of the bus’s tumbling engine as its tires clawed tracks long as napalm trails into the places where once roamed rivers, wind and living life. You have taken the east from me/ you have taken the west from me/ you have taken the moon from me/ you have taken the sun from me. But these lines did nothing but start the kindly old soul to crying. I hugged her closer and whispered, Don’t look out there. Be still. Remember. Think of trees. This seemed to soothe her and when she turned away from the window and listened carefully to me. I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world. She sniffed back her tears and whispered, So, is it true, then? They tried to bury us? They didn’t know we were seeds? I smiled and said, Yes. It’s true. It has always been true. And it always will be. She laid her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes, sighed, and said, So be it then. Yes, I answered, so be it.
It was on the Wednesday before we were to go on a road trip that the letter arrived, announcing that I was to be sent to the brand-new facility that had been built to bring children from all over the County into some vision of what the letter had termed: “a step towards progress in race relations.” The argument that had ensued had been enough to start my nose to bleeding and my head to pounding again. My father had stated firmly he did not want me going to school so far from home. Don’t you see, he said, his eyes flaring with anxiety, what those people do when our children are sent to their schools?
But his wife insisted it was an honor I had been chosen to be the first child from our area to participate in the school desegregation plan. They won’t treat her bad—they must see some potential in her. Papa Earl reckoned that whatever potential I had would come out anywhere, since, as he put it, what’s for her shall surely not go past her. Ma Fannie had only said, come in the kitchen and let me make you some peppermint tea. When I shook my head and looked away, I could feel the hurt in her eyes and felt ashamed. Then, as the argument between my father and his wife escalated, I turned and left the room without anyone seeming to know I had gone.
I wondered what stroke of bad luck had caused them to choose me. I was about to finish primary school at the top of my class and Mr. Lopez had promised he would do all he could to get me into a debate club program for the summer. You’ve got something, he had told me, something sharp, something quick, something brave. You must shape it into something special. Even though I would be working with Ma Fannie on the evenings when the people she cleaned for required silver service for their dinner parties, Mr. Lopez said he could drive me to the debate club in the afternoon, and take she and I to work straightaway after it concluded.
Then the notice was sent around the school that the district was looking to choose children for the desegregation program. We had been assembled in the cafeteria to listen to the principal proudly read the announcement aloud. She admonished us to be on our best behavior when the district officials came to visit and remember that being bused 15, 20, or 30 miles away would give us opportunities we would never have the chance at ever again. Ever again, as if the mountains would crumble to the sea before the district ever noticed us again. She didn’t say that last bit, but that’s how I heard it. And, as I walked slowly while the rest of the children streamed excitedly around me, I wondered why the principal’s talk had not made me as giddy as them.
On the day of the school district officials’ visit, I made myself vomit and stayed home. For weeks, I overheard thrilled whispers between my father’s wife and her best friend, as they poured over the Sears and Penney’s catalogues. The kindly old soul slipped in and peeked over their shoulders, then hurried back to tell me they were choosing new clothes for me. I shrugged and asked her to help me lay pin a large piece of drawing paper onto the wall. For the rest of the evening, she and I drew our memories of the canyon, then let Papa Early come in and add a rendering of the things he remembered from his boyhood days in Ireland. Even though his rowan and birch trees stood taller than our manzanita and mesquite did, they blended in nicely, and we kept at the drawing until we finally heard the screen door slam. Then we took a moment to bask in the silence lifted its weary head to a moon that gazed down on our devastated area like a mother hen who realizes her chicks have been lost and has no notion as to where to begin looking for them.
Papa Earl rambled off to bed and the kindly old soul fell asleep before I could tell her the moon needed someone to talk to. I longed to go sit on the canyon ridge and chat with it while waiting for the bobcat to venture out for its evening stroll. Or to wander up to Miss Marsha’s and have her read my palm. Your head and heart line are long and strong. You think. You feel. And you do both at the same time. So, look. Listen. And remember. You are il Mago, a master of words. So that one day you may tell others of the things that are in their own hearts in a way that will make them think and wonder how those things came to be there. If old Golla Jack was still around, I could take a bag of sugar cubes over to him for Mawu and Lisa. The doll I had name after them snuggled close to the kindly old soul as I closed my eyes and remembered the tinkling sound of the bells in La Senora’s shop. I wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Chin were happy living in the home the County had built for all the old people whose stores and homes they had knocked down. I could not reckon how they would have space for their altar and incense in one of those places.
The moon waited for me to speak. In the sky, nobody is asleep. Nobody. Nobody. I felt ashamed to make the moon sky. But I had no choice. The truth was that what she was looking for was gone. Let there be a landscape of open eyes. It was no use searching and no use waiting. Gone were the coyotes, the bobcat, the jackrabbits, the frogs, the fish, the river, the willows, the aroma of sage rising up at night and dew in the morning. Let there be a landscape of open eyes and bitter wounds of fire. I looked up for a long time before I closed the curtains and was grateful for the tears that blurred my eyes. Forgive me, I whispered to the weeping moon, whose sorrow I could not bear. Another day we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead. Then I forgave myself for saying these cruel things to the constant and patient moon by jumbling up the lines of mine and Mr. Lopez’s favorite poem. One day, another day, we will watch the sky fall from the eyes of cows, one day, another day, forgetfulness will not exist, one day, another day, we will fall down the stairs to eat the moist earth, one day, another day, we will wake to dream again.
Apparently, I was the only child chosen for the desegregation plan because the school officials had read my poetry in the district magazine. I remained steady and did not blink when Mr. Lopez shook his head and explained how his enthusiasm for my poetry had called attention to me. I only wanted you to be in the magazine. I never wanted this for you. Never. I am sorry. I will miss you.
You will not miss me. I’m not going.
Are you certain about that?
Yes. I am certain.
Well. Good. Now. Here. I’ve found a book I think you will like.
I retreated to my room with while my father argued with his wife about the letter. The kindly old soul looked up from her drawing, her head titled, waiting for an explanation of their bickering. I simply shook my head, gathered my diary, pens, and carved box, and searched for the new map of the city that my father had brought home one day, shaking his head, and muttering, How can anyone get to work on those freeways, all crossed up over each other, and everyone driving like bats out of Hell, you can’t see where to get on or come off, it is nothing less than vexation. I let the kindly old soul rest her chin on my shoulder and watch as I traced the route from our area to the new suburb with the new school that would house the experiment of progress in race relations. As my finger scanned what used to be an endless stretch of chaparral, she drew back with a gasp and said, But, that’s in the fire path! I shook my head and sighed. Yes. I know that. We know that. But it looks like they don’t know that. She frowned and said, Or…maybe…they just don’t care?
The sudden understanding of what she had said made my head reel. I peered at the map and realized that the new freeway cut right through the place where we had once seen fire leap the river and roar its way through the brush. We had been out collecting cactus apples, and carefully taking the older leaves to make nopales when the sound of pine cones bursting open in the distance alerted us to stand back from the edge of the mesa. My father’s silhouetted smile glowed against the flame and the joy in his voice was contagious. Hear that? That’s the news seeds coming forth! Every year when the fires come, they heat up the pine cones and burn the dirt clean so more trees will grow! And all we could do was laugh as the kindly old jumped up and danced happily in the shower of seeds that was soon falling harder than February rain.
My mind raced as I remembered that landscape. They had built the school in the fire path. They had destroyed those ancient pines. They had filled the rich burnt earth with concrete. They had forced the river underground and choked it with the mile-high piles of boulders they had ripped out of the skin of the mountains. I shuddered when I realized that these were the same kind of people who had murdered our canyon. And, it seemed, there were a lot of them. Everywhere. They were just one more battalion in this war that we were fighting. Lines from a poem Mr. Lopez had once recited to me flitted through my head and flowed out of my mouth. So shock I was to realized what we were witnessing that I jumbled them into a version that made sense to me: Homeland: a mutilated territory/who at night frightens the frog?/thunder of the storm/I hear your complaints/crack the skeletons in pairs/I hear what went.
My muttering caused the kindly old soul to draw back in horror and search for Miss Marsha’s carved box. She placed it in front of me and gently opened the lid as I continued to let poetry answer my questions. When the pains raged on the earth/it reared in the transient dawn/the earth shaken with knives/and, as before, the raptors/ the moon sleeps on the mounts/Death stacked and divided/the dream hides/ your knife divides heritage/the from the remote past/Time grows silent. The kindly old soul reached delicately into the box and lifted the tarot cards out. When she saw me shake my head, she put them back into their velvet pouch and raised her eyebrows as I took up old Golla Jack’s knife and began to slice pages of my diary into thin horizontal strips. Then she smiled and began handing me every red colored pencil. she could find until the lines I meticulously copied the new book Mr. Lopez had given me flowed like blood that I mixed to offer to the moon in hopes it would help her healed this forced sterilization of the land. As I wrote, I remembered something my father had said once whilst we were tending our vegetable patch: How can anything grow in this vexation?
How, indeed? And, who were these creatures who were vexing us so? I tried to distinguish the vague memory of their faces that the principal had displayed on the bulletin board outside her office. I found there was nothing worth remembering about them. They all looked the same, with their faces of unbaked bread dough and their lizard smiles. It was then I realized I could not refuse to take the bus along their freeway to what they called progress. I could not hide from them, shrink back from them, seek to avoid them. I had to walk straight into their midst and see them up close. I had to discover who they were, where they had come from, and where they were going. Once, I had believed I would be one of the seeds that would grow in the place where the buried me. Now, I understood I was one of the seeds that the fire path would send flying up into the sky, to land on the scorched earth and grow into a tree so tall that, long after I was gone, people might climb up into its branches and see, hear, feel, remember and know. See what I see. Hear what I hear. Feel what I feel. Remember what I remember. And, most of all, know what I know. That nothing can grow with all this vexation. And only we can still it.
The woman in the paper bag dress was still squawking. The kindly old soul had curled herself up on the steel shelves and were napping. I was thinking of moonbeams and butterflies and didn’t notice when the woman took off her cat-eye glasses and squealed: And, I’ve heard so much about you! They tell me you are a poet! Is that true? I kept my mind focused on the tears the moon had wept as I had packed my schoolbag the night before. You musn’t go. You promised you wouldn’t go. Don’t go.
I must to go.
But. They are dangerous. Don’t go.
I am not afraid of them.
But. What will you take for your journey?
I had longed to reach up and cradle the moon in my arms. For a while, we gazed at one another. Then I had held up the new book Mr. Lopez had given me. She gazed upon it and sighed.
A book? Only a book? Why not take Gu’s knife?
I smiled and shook my head.
No. That is what they will be expecting. Because they do not know: the pen is mightier than the sword.
The moon blinked hard then filled my heart with joy when she smiled.
And you are Il Mago—the magician—the master of words.
Yes. I am.
The radiance in her eyes sent light flowing through the darkness in my soul.
Then I shall watch over you as you go. But. Are you not afraid?
I smiled as the kindly old soul laughed, shook her head, and rushed to answer.
No. She is not afraid.
Then the moon nodded and closed her eyes to still her tears. I watched as she began to doze and whispered, No. I am not afraid.
I felt sorry for this woman in the paper bag dress. Surely, she was raising her blood pressure from the strain of trying so hard to be nice to me. I quietly searched her eyes and saw the emptiness in them squeezing the soul from her heart. I wondered where her blood had gone. Had it dried up, like a raisin in the sun? Had it been bleached to nothing by the glare off the relentless sun of the suburb where she existed? Had it stopped coursing in her veins, much in the same way her dreams had stopped running toward their destiny? How had she become so dead that she could sit stiffly for hours in this steel-beam, concrete place that had been slapped so hastily in the fire path that no seeds would burst from her when the season came?
Yes, ma’am, I said so quietly that I felt her shudder, I am a poet. Would you like a poem?
Something stirred in the room. I glanced over at the steel case. The kindly old soul lay in sweet repose, dreaming of the river. The something stirred again. I waited for it to show itself. But all I could see was the last flicker of the flame of youth in the paper bag dress woman’s pulse. I gazed for a while at her carefully manicured hands that had never known the delight of dirt under their nails, or the rush of a stream over their fingers, or the warm cadence of a kitten’s purring. The wedding band she wore sent cruel shards of brash light from its blood diamonds. I squinted and let them bounce around the room until they splattered against the walls like bugs on a windshield. Then the something stirred again as the woman’s smile carved more lines into her face and raised her voice another octave.
Oh, yes, please! Do you have one handy?
I nodded and took out the new book Mr. Lopez had given me. As I flipped through the pages, I said, Well, yes, ma’am, I do. But, if you will pardon me, ma’am, I do not have my own poems with me. They are at home in my diary. But, I do have the poems in this book—but, sorry, ma’am, they are in Spanish. But, with all due respect, ma’am, if you do not understand Spanish, I can translate one for you. Will that be all right, ma’am?
The kindly old soul roused and giggle at the astonished look on the woman’s face. Surely, it had raised her blood pressure again, so I waited for the it, and the redness that had invaded her face, to fade. The something surrounded her and she shifted in her chair, then picked up a letter opener and fiddled with it as she waited for me to begin. I kept my eye in it and remembered the moon’s lament: But. They are dangerous. Then I reminded myself that the pen is mightier than the sword and knew that I was safe when her voice weakly said, Why, yes, that would be wonderful.
Then I nodded and thought of Mr. Lopez as I began to read: Water hollows stone/wind scatters water/stone stops the wind/Each is another and no other/crossing and vanishing/through their empty names/water, stone, wind. When I finished, the something had left the room and the paper bag dress woman’s letter opener had clamored to the floor when her mouth dropped up then shut quickly, like a fish gasping for air in a net. The kindly old soul grinned widely and nodded at me when the woman’s stuttering voice belched from her throat.
My, my, my goodness? Where? Wh—? Wherever? Did a N-n-n-egro ch-child ever -l-learn to r-read like that?
I smiled at her until her breathing stilled. Well, with all due respect ma’am, where I live, there are a lot of people from Mexico. I’ve heard Spanish since I was born.
Is that so? I. See. And, this poem? Who wrote it?
Octavio Paz, ma’am—a Mexican poet.
Oh. I see. Well. Imagine that. I never knew Mexicans wrote poetry.
Yes, ma’am, they do indeed.
And. You. You write poetry.
Yes, ma’am, I do indeed.
Well. If I must say so, your stay at our school will be interesting indeed. She tried to draw herself up taller in her chair, but could not muster the strength to resume smiling. Well. Welcome to our school. Now. Go on down to the secretary’s office and she will take you to your classroom. I wish you the best here.
I took my time arranging my new book carefully in my bookbag. Then I fumbled around to make sure my pencil case was securely closed. The kindly old soul began to laugh as the woman’s face reddened again. She stared at me, but did not say another word. I felt the stride in her step slow down as I meticulously rearranged my composition books and pouch of rulers, erasers, compasses, and math geometry tools. Then I stood up, smiled at her again, and enjoyed the tremor that flittered over her mouth.
Thank you, ma’am.
The kindly old soul fell laughing off the steel shelves when I curtsied, then hurried to catch up with me as I backed carefully out of the room. As my hand touched the door handle, the paper bad dress woman’s voice suddenly spurted forth from her mouth.
That poet? What did you say his name was, again?
Octavio Paz, ma’am.
And he’s a Mexican?
Yes, ma’am, he is.
And, the poem? What does it mean? I, well, I didn’t, quite get it if you know what I mean.
Why, yes, ma’am, I do indeed know what you mean. But, with all due respect, ma’am, I suppose a poem can mean whatever you want it to mean, if you know what I mean, with all due respect, ma’am.
Yes. Well. Yes. Well. I suppose you might have a point there. Now. Run on down to the secretary. And best of luck here.
As we made our way down the slime green hallway, the kindly old soul and I leaned on one another, whispering to one another. We’ve seen one of them up close. One of them who does not know who Octavio Paz is. One of them who does not know that Mexicans wrote poetry. One of them who does not know colored children could understand Spanish. One of them who wears dresses that looked like paper bags. One of them who wears glasses shaped like a cat’s eyes. One of them who does not know what a simply poem meant. One of them who reaches for something, anything, that could become a weapon, when they realize we know something they don’t know. One of them whose blood dried up so long ago they cannot remember the warmth of the sun, the tenderness of the moon, the song of the river, or the stores the wind tells you when you’re listening.
The moon was right. They are dangerous. I couldn’t wait to get home and let her know there was no need to worry about me. Or any of us, for that matter. Yes. They are dangerous. But, the most danger they can do is to themselves. Anyone who cannot understand a poem is doomed to die without ever living. Now I understood why they waged war by plowing us under. The rhymes of the wind, the verses of the river, the lyrics of the leaves in the trees, the ballads of the rain, the stanzas of the air, and the epics of the land was something they could not understand. But we had nothing to fear. They would continue to try to bury us. But, as long as we had pens, we could stand against their swords. And, even if they denied us paper, we would not stop making poems, even if it meant writing them in blood across the moon, whose sanguine tears would fall and nourish us to stay strong until we won this war.
With much love and thanks to the poets quoted in this piece: Federico Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, Octavio Paz, Ramón López Velarde, Pablo Neruda, Salvador Novo, and the bards of ancient Ireland.