Fetching Lili’s Ashes

A bill from the urgent care center
in Mesa, Arizona,
is addressed to Lisa Steinhoff,
whoever she was:
no one called Steinhoff lives
on Painted Rock Trail today.
I lean over the console of the truck,
write “Not at this address!”,
and slip it in the outgoing mail.

Ten days ago Saturday
we put our Russian Blue down,
after midnight, bundling her crate
into the Subaru for the long drive,
to the only open vet, far out of town.
I sweet-talked her, our little girl
(though in people years
she was sixty-four, or sixty-five).

But repeating the sad drive again,
leaving the clinic again,
this time in full sun June
I carry the box with her ashes
to the car, gently, like a newborn,
cradling the deep blue bag,
the ribboned sleeve from the crematorium.

I half expected to lift the lid
for her last lesson of dust,
but the box is fastened shut:
Spanish cedar, corners rounded,
joints seamless, sweetly smelling
in the unseasonable heat.

And on the forty-mile route back north
despite myself, knowing she is not her body,
not at this address,
I talk to the cedar box,
warm in the cab of the truck
warm as her head was in the moment before,
her ears then, like old carpet,
ragged with age.

Rock Eats

I place the yellow warbler on the big rock
at the head of the path
where it hugs the hillside down into the gulch.

She had hit the south window,
and unlike the thrush last summer
which righted itself, sat up, and later flew off,
she had died.
Holding a wild bird,
warm as an oat cake in your hands,
ties you to the living wild,
but the odd sweet smell of death,
of these small deaths,
comes from somewhere else.

And so, obeying an ancient voice,
I place her on the big rock
knowing she will be gone in the morning —
like the bones of the wood rat
that lay on the path for weeks
until I put them on the rock.

Everything eats:
even the sun will eat the earth in time,
but what does a rock eat
if not quiet, unmoving things?

Is it the coyotes and the cats
and the scavenger birds at night,
the interns and understudies of decay?
Or instead,
while we’re sleeping,
the great mass of the earth itself
tidying up, absorbing itself,
too old for teeth.

Eight Years On (Guided Meditation)

The white wolf,
the one who comes out
of the woods in the northeast,
pads into the circle
between two ash trees in leaf.

She doesn’t say anything.
I don’t raise my hand.
She stretches at my left hand,
head turned to the side,
head in the grass,
her breath moving the blades of grass.
And like old lovers
we sit that way for a long time.

By my foot, at the base of the tree,
someone has left a compass,
dented on the top,
with a needle that doesn’t spin.
I hear you laugh,
saying, whichever way,
whichever way,
we can never be wrong.

Not now in the shade of the white ash,
the one that cools,
the one for damp-heat, for childbirth,
not now where the wild wood ends,
where small waves rustle like aspen,
where water gently rocks the coracle
you were
too soon
cast in.

I held your head in my lap
one birthday,
in my wickerwork lap,
like a nest of white-gold birds,
like ribbons of smoking resin,
cupped, cradled, out of the wind.

I close the book I was reading.
I close the thin red cover of the book
and bind it with a leather cord.
We sit there for a long time,
not touching,
humming wolf songs,
and you know when I have left
because you have never left.

Dad Dying

He used to tell stories:
how my mother would visit him at Oxford
and cook three-course meals on a single burner
while they sported the oak,
which, he explained, meant they kept
the heavy wood door chained.

In the end, he drank so much
telephone calls didn’t reach him.
They fell through the wire,
and you shied from his thick, warm voice.
His great chest shrank at seventy:
the captain of the first XV,
the rugger boy who scored three tries
the day I was born.

In the hospital
nurses fluttered like sheets
along the hallways;
through the window, a garden party sky.
I thought of that wartime summer,
the one all Englishmen seem to remember
whether they were alive, or not yet born,
or dying in the air in Spitfires.

He was a kid then,
lugging books and his gas mask.
A part of that world was his —
the tea on the grass,
and the big beneficent clouds, promising
they would also be there
that day in Kelowna.

But he didn’t speak.
I made an awkward joke to his jaundiced head
about how I hadn’t expected to see him so soon,
and took my place.
His breathing filled the room.

When it stopped, his wife cried
and shouldered out,
ignoring my mothering arms.
I crept back in before they took his eyes,
kissed his yellow brow,
our skin briefly the same.

The Family Dog

In my father’s dream
Toto the family dog
bounds up the townhouse steps two at a time.
They’d given up the dog long before.
It was just dad sleeping,
when the drink would let him sleep.

He wrote bright, fierce dreams
that Saturday, his liver gone,
the mantel clock he loved ticking it out,
the handwriting in his journal
spidery and soft.

It’s easy to see that last good wish,
the dog back full of life,
a tonic for his own small stepping,
journal in hand,
each entry ending “cognac?”.

Madly, Deeply

There is only one life lesson,
and that is to grow things
with your own hands,
holding late April in her thin stalks,
wanting madly, deeply to grow,
needing madly, deeply to die,
to wither yellow.

The rest of it — the details,
the numbers and the lengths,
are like the magazines you read
in doctors’ waiting rooms,
idly taking what you find because it’s there,
idly leafing through but not subscribed,
the way we are subscribed
to the watery light of five o-clock,
the soft snow that fell overnight,
the deckle-edge daffodils already
bowing and browning,

subscribed to the stream that courses
through the deep ravine, raging and falling,
seeping, drying, gone
while we are summer sleeping,
subscribed to the heart-faced hyssop
and the houndstongue,
mouldering earth and bonemeal,
prom dances, promises, and handfasting,
in the humus, hen manure
and the worm castings,
cupping late April in her thin stalks,

saying our goodbyes
to the nursery newborns,
holding our new daughters
close to our chests like specters, weeping.