Watching the Sky
Her friends call her the madwoman in the attic, but she's not crazy or even eccentric. She just does what she pleases. This tiny apartment under the eaves is her favorite, the best of all the places she's lived. From her bedroom window she can see the sun rise, and in her kitchen she can watch the sun set as she does her dishes. She has a skylight that opens to the roof. From there she can see all the way across the city to the blue waters of the bay.
She has the best kind of landlady, an elderly widow who doesn't raise the rent. Her two computers are always on. One scans radio telescope signals from space, the other is analyzing weather patterns. Her walls and ceilings are covered with maps-- street maps of the neighborhood, topographical maps, tidal charts of the river and bay, maps of where things used to be, maps of what will be. In the heart of her kitchen is a picture of the earth from space. She is a geographer by profession. She knows the latitude and longitude of her little spot on earth. She knows what time the moon will rise.
In the corner of her living room, hanging from a hook in its head, is a human skeleton. It was a part of the anatomy lab in the old Normal School, one of the valuables taken away before they tore it down. Passed from teacher to artist to student to her. Everyone wanted it, but no one wanted it for long. She traded her sewing machine for it. She calls it her roommate. It stands there silently under the pendulum clock.
The street is quiet now, you can hear the clock ticking. In the kitchen window a bank of thunder heads is moving in a line, west to east. The bottoms are flat and purple and full of rain, the tops creamy and solid, flashing with heat lightning, visibly expanding in the cooler air. They glow pink, and then a deep rose before they fade to grey. The clouds swiftly cover the sky, pushed by storm winds from the coast of Africa. Day ends here and the sun rises on the other side of the world. The woman closes her shades against the dark. She checks her maps. She watches the sky. She knows what time it is.
A Person Unknown
Bare branches scratch my window, dry leaves whisper as I shuffle the deck. I lay down the Celtic cross and the universe rearranges itself on my kitchen table--Queens and peasants and lovers; a woman closing the mouth of a lion. The Tarot is a river you can never enter twice. Time's changes make all its predictions true. Now the wind sighs like love lost. In this dark season the days shorten toward the winter solstice.
It's Samhain season, the end of October, the trees are naked. The veil between the worlds grows thin--the veil of illusion; the veil that hides the terror and glory of the world.
I am safe at home, then the ground shakes under my feet, the sea rises up. Countries change and borders shift. Yesterday's flags are strewn on the ground. The stranger is at my door, or I at hers. Every day is a rending of the veil.
In this second millennium, we travel this earth for love or necessity. The veil tears and we are undone, searching for a common language, strangers in a foreign land.
I am not a stranger or dispossessed. But my grandmother, as a girl, waded through flood waters in the streets of Providence when the Great Hurricane struck. In a greater storm I watched the city of New Orleans drown and her people cast on the mercy of their neighbors like refugees. We live on the coast, we take our chances. The ocean brings wealth, change and storm. The ocean brings us the stranger, the stowaway, the refugee.
I sit by my window as darkness falls this Samhain season and I shuffle the cards, scanning the horizon for storm clouds. My only company is the person unknown. She is frighteningly beautiful, more than an ordinary possession. She wears a face of power and dignity, the face of the goddess Durga, the face of truth. Her jaw is sharp and classic. She is S-curves from head to toe--one of god's perfect designs. A bare tree, a dragonfly, a river delta--what is left when all is lost. A person not in time, but in eternity.
She was imported and sold in the bone trade. I know nothing about her, except that she was female, small, and poor, and the poor have to sell their labor, their hair, their bodies. I often wonder who she was, but her inscrutable grin reveals nothing.
I turn to my cards. I shuffle the deck and lay out a spread for her, to see if I can divine her name.
The World--a naked woman dancing on the four winds, anything is possible.
The Sun--a beautiful child riding on a lion--rebirth in a fortunate life.
The Five of Pentacles reversed--charity, bitter to receive.
The Queen of Wands--the power of the word--the voice of the disinherited.
The Tower--revolution and the great castle falls, the Lord and Lady are thrown to the whirlwind.
Is this her true fortune? No sign from her, she is inscrutable. She is serene, beyond care, but I am tired. I have to work tomorrow, so I put away the cards and fall into a guiltless sleep. But I dream.
In my dream I hear a clicking, like spike heels on concrete.
She jangles with bracelets of glass and tin, stepping carefully on her delicate bony feet, tidying up my apartment. She stares into my cupboard for a long time, at all the food there. She puts on my new silk skirt, the one I haven't worn yet, the one with the rainbow colors and the tiny mirrors sewn on by hand, bought from the import store and such a good bargain. Does she borrow it or reclaim it? She goes into my bathroom and opens the mirrored cabinet. She uses every one of my creams and lotions lavishly. I am careful and sparing of my scented cream, but she just lathers it on and throws the jar on the floor. She is heedless, as if she is entitled. As if she was the Queen of Wands. As she applies the cream to her sharp cheekbones the edges soften and smooth brown flesh rounds her profile. Her dark eyes are less innocent than I had imagined. She has a scar on her chin. She tries to cover it with my makeup, but mine is the wrong color for her complexion. In flesh she is less perfect than in bone. Her brows are heavy and her nose is large. She's hungry every day, but she is young, she is smiling. She puts on my best necklace and spreads the silk skirt for me to see.
We have always lived on the frontier. Powers and principalities change, but our family belongs to this place on the earth. This skirt is mine. It tells our story, if you know how to read it. I sat with the women, sewing, and learned what they had to teach me. "Take care not to lose a needle," the Grandmothers said. "They are expensive. Sew fast, girl, you are making your dowry".
I open my eyes and she is still hanging there in her corner. Silent, white and delicate. I traded her for a sewing machine, an anatomical skeleton of unknown origin. I don't know how old she is, or what country she came from. Somewhere poor enough for people to trade in human bones is all I know.
I used to keep her concealed, hanging in my closet from the hook bolted to her skull--covered with a plastic garbage bag. This Halloween I decided to take her out. There are much more frightening things, after all, where the sirens wail outside my deadbolt-locked front door.
Like an echo from my dream, I hear her voice again...
A sewing machine would have been a dowry for me. It would have been the family business. A treadle Singer with leaves and vines painted on the cast-iron body. It would have been our pride and joy.
She doesn't frighten me. No one can hurt the dead. This season I'm haunted by the living. This person unknown is beyond life's cares; but somewhere in the world the ground she walked on remembers her. If her grandchildren are hungry tonight a debt is running up. Whose debt? Who will pay?
I get up and light a candle. I cut the deck and draw a card. Wheel of Fortune. She and I ride the cycle of birth and death, chance and striving. A veil of time, place and privilege separates her from me, but this is Samhain season. All walls fall. Only fortune separates us, and only mercy makes life bearable. Live well, be kind. Blessed be.
Eclipse of the Moon
The sky is unsettled, overcast, churning with the March wind. You keep looking up as you drive, willing the clouds to go away. You wish you had dedicated this night to the eclipse, instead of taking on obligations and commitments, time killers and petty errands. Finally free, you turn on to Broad Street, the crux of the city grid. You are driving true east, and you catch a glimpse, between two buildings, of the full moon with a red bite out of the edge.
It's easy driving in the high numbers on the west end. No one is out tonight. Neat houses with burglar bars on windows dark or flickering with television light. Further east as you get closer to downtown the streets light up like a carnival. Blazing neon signs-Mekong Market, Joyeria Italia, Hustla Family Music. You have to brake for a guy on a bicycle. Chimi wagons lined up in the breakdown lane sell cheap greasy sandwiches, a wonderful spicy smell. People stand still in the middle of the sidewalk with cell phone cradled to cheek. Voices from Monrovia, Phnom Penh, Santo Domingo, whisper, "miss you".
You wish you were in the woods tonight, you wish you were even free to pull over. The city lights are too bright to see the stars. But there is the moon, over St. Michael's Church, half bright, half dark. She's out of phase, you would notice that. No one else is looking up.
Out in front of Ysabel's Beauty Salon a man has fallen down and someone holds his cane, someone else helps him up.
Broad Street ends at Service Road Number Seven. You look down a gentle slope into the sparkling basin of downtown. Just over the Industrial National Bank hangs the brick red moon with just an edge of silver. Now she will rapidly wax to full. No time to look at her now, the traffic is heavy, a stop at the end of every short block. There's a new addition to the confusion of traffic signs, a blue and white hurricane swoosh--emergency evacuation route. All of the central city was underwater in the last great hurricane. That was seventy years ago. You drive past student dorms and elderly housing. There's a line in front of the theater and a traffic jam forming at the parking lot, so you turn onto a side street.
Tires crunch on one of the last cobblestone streets. The city has layers, new over old. Beneath the cobblestones is a network of pipes carrying fresh water and waste water. Beneath the pipes are quahog shells, arrowheads, pottery. Beneath this layer of time is a salt marsh where the Narragansetts stood in clean salt water and dug shellfish. Through the heart of what is now the city a great river meandered to the bay.
You are driving along the bank of the river, but you can hardly see it. Granite and concrete lock it into a narrow channel crossed with wide bridges. You turn south, coming out of the downtown, following the river's course. When you reach your destination, the end of Water Street, the great bulk of the Hurricane Barrier rises like a fortress against the sea. Green lights flash along the edge. Docks and pleasure boats crowd the harbor on the city side. The tugs and the tankers are on the other side, the storm side.
The moon is almost full again, just a tiny edge of red, the last of the eclipse. You did not greet her with magic and ritual, or even a clear, dark sky and time to watch. But you saw what you could, through a dusty windshield and city lights. The moon is still the queen of the sky. She is patient. She will turn in her cycles whether we are here to worship her or not.
Nancy Green lives on Hope, east of Empire and north of Power. She finds her spiritual home at the intersection of Benefit and Benevolent. She trusts in Providence.
Photographs on this page by Nancy Green.