The MercyThe ship that took my mother to Ellis Islandeighty-three years ago was named "The Mercy."She remembers trying to eat a bananawithout first peeling it and seeing her first orangein the hands of a young Scot, a seamanwho gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for herwith a red bandana and taught her the word,"orange," saying it patiently over and over.A long autumn voyage, the days darkeningwith the black waters calming as night came on,then nothing as far as her eyes could see and spacewithout limit rushing off to the cornersof creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddishto find her family in New York, prayersunheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignoredby all the powers that swept the waves of darknessbefore she woke, that kept "The Mercy" afloatwhile smallpox raged among the passengersand crew until the dead were buried at seawith strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom."The Mercy," I read on the yellowing pages of a bookI located in a windowless room of the libraryon 42nd Street, sat thirty-one daysoffshore in quarantine before the passengersdisembarked. There a story ends. Other shipsarrived, "Tancred" out of Glasgow, "The Neptune"registered as Danish, "Umberto IV,"the list goes on for pages, November givesway to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.Italian miners from Piemonte digunder towns in western Pennsylvaniaonly to rediscover the same nightmarethey left at home. A nine-year-old girl travelsall night by train with one suitcase and an orange.She learns that mercy is something you can eatagain and again while the juice spills overyour chin, you can wipe it away with the backof your hands and you can never get enough.
GospelThe new grass rising in the hills,the cows loitering in the morning chill,a dozen or more old browns hiddenin the shadows of the cottonwoodsbeside the streambed. I go higherto where the road gives up and there’sonly a faint path strewn with lupinebetween the mountain oaks. I don’task myself what I’m looking for.I didn’t come for answersto a place like this, I came to walkon the earth, still cold, still silent.Still ungiving, I’ve said to myself,although it greets me with last year’sdead thistles and this year’s hard spines, early bloomingwild onions, the curling remainsof spider’s cloth. What did I bring to the dance? In my back pocketa crushed letter from a womanI’ve never met bearing bad newsI can do nothing about. So I wanderthese woods half sightless whilea west wind picks up in the treesclustered above. The pines makea music like no other, rising and falling like a distant surf at nightthat calms the darkness before first light. “Soughing” we call it, fromOld English, no less. How weightlesswords are when nothing will do.
Our ValleyWe don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and Augustwhen the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchardwhen suddenly the wind cools and for a moment you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almostbelieve something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,something massive, irrational, and so powerful eventhe mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains have no word for ocean, but if you live here you begin to believe they know everything. They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,a silence that grows in autumn when snow fallsslowly between the pines and the wind diesto less than a whisper and you can barely catchyour breath because you're thrilled and terrified.You have to remember this isn't your land. It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived besideand thought was yours. Remember the small boats that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men who carved a living from it only to find themselves carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home, so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust, wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.