the bones of this land

i grew up on a mining claim
in the mountains of central arizona.
bear with me.
i grew up in a nice-enough house
on the poor side of a small town
in the mountains of central arizona.
i walked to school every day,
got a job in a thrift store when i turned 15,
and spent every second weekend
and then some
up at the mine with my dad.

this was not a hobby.
my dad drank hard.
the desert dried him out,
more or less. saved his life.
like a cactus, he retained
what he most valued.
books, beer, his daughters.
the desert gave back clarity,
integrity. silence.
his skin baked brown under that long sun.

the old copper mine had played out
decades ago, the top collapsed
into an open pit. an ore mill straddled
the hillside above. junk abounded.
old cars, oil barrels, you name it.
the product and refuse of industry.
dad’s buddy Chris would come
up to the claim with beer money
and they stood there talking
in the shade of one real big oak,
where dad kept his camper parked
near the edge of the bluff,
how they were gonna get that mill running,
and make a million bucks.
or even a living.
they didn’t try very hard.
it was enough
to stand in that shade, that sun,
and take in each day. the sun
and the solitude filled him up.
i spent my nights by the light of a kerosene heater,
in the old stone cabin, its shelves
piled with antique chemistry in jars,
enticing and dangerous.
my sister collected interesting rocks,
set them up in a pile by the old mine tailings.
we read books, talked with dad,
sat in the shade, or explored scrub-covered hillsides,
and the seep down the hill, at the old cave-mine entrance,
where a cottonwood grew, and watercress,
while dad sipped his beer, read, smoked cigarettes,
year after year. we ate lentils cooked with an onion,
circus animal cookies, orange crush. it sounds
like poverty, and it was, but those were good years.

twenty years after leaving that place, my sister and i
went back to scatter his ashes. it was not
the place he died, or the place he’d lived the longest.
but it was the only place that made sense.
we had the idea that we’d stand
on the edge of that bluff, under the old oak
that sheltered those years, and throw ash to the wind.

we found the mine. the road was gone,
locked and rucked into hillocks and destroyed.
we walked up.
the old mill was gone. how do you erase
something the size of an ore mill?
a wide flat spot remained, buzzing with
bees drinking nectar from horehound and mallow.
not a single gear or barrel or oil stain remained.
i found one steel washer in the dirt, and a piece of plastic –
a relief. this tiny human thing.
we walked on.
the bluff was gone. the old oak, vanished.
the land just – stopped.
a tree big enough to live under.
a hillside wide enough to grow up on.
washed down the gully. we felt
that we had imagined our childhoods.

the bones of the land
spoke to my bones.
the horizon remained,
limitless, green, unspeaking.
pinned under the vast blue
of that desert sky, and, always,
offering up to it.
nothing had changed, except us.
everything had changed, except us.

we ate lunch surrounded by manzanita and silence.
i found one stone, a pebble,
flecked with mortar
from the vanished cabin beneath the oaks.
i took it home.
now, even that trace is gone.

we scattered his ashes off the new edge of the bluff.
scrub oak and manzanita accepted
the dust of our father’s body,
as they had accepted the dust of his life.
i piled the last handful of ash
beside a tiny purple wildflower.
as we watched, an ant walked on it,
took a fleck of bone carefully in its mandibles,
and walked away.
now even that trace is gone.
it lives, like you,
only in our bones.

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One Response to the bones of this land

  1. Hunter says:

    Wow, beautiful

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