Winter 2007, Volume 23.2
Richard Robbins was raised in California and
Montana. His second poetry collection Famous Persons We Have Known was
published by Eastern Washington University Press. He currently directs the
creative writing program and Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State
University, Mankato. http://www.english2.mnsu.edu/robbins/
When I was a kid, two Japanese monks dressed in long robes appeared on a TV variety show. One held a samurai sword, the other an armful of different-sized fruit. One monk lay down on his back and balanced a watermelon on his stomach. The other raised the sword high over his head and brought it down in a flash until the two halves of watermelon fell to the floor. The monk on his back was clearly untouched by the blade.
The two men switched roles. One monk placed the curve of a banana on the curve of his head. The other swung a wide, horizontal arc so that, after the blade penetrated the fruit, one third fell to the right shoulder of the monk, one third fell to the left, and the middle third balanced on the flat, upturned side of the sword. Not a strand of hair had moved. The monks dealt in their turn with an orange, a kiwi, and finally two blueberries poised in the cleft of one man’s chin.
After I moved out of the house, my first roommate hated that I would slice an onion without a cutting board under it. I asked her to show me any marks I had made on the countertop, but she never could find them. Many years later, a man I loved claimed all I needed to do was to run my hands over his stomach before he could feel tiny slices being made of his liver. He sometimes woke up choking in the middle of the night after dreaming I had kissed him, turning his tongue to filets.
As Lao-Tzu might say, the vegetable cuts as deep as the knife. The potato skin lets the blade in, but it reaches around the knife too, almost as if a grief lived in the steel, some hard sharp thing only a milky juice could soothe. You or I might watch this and not know anything is happening. We’d look for marks but find nothing.
For a time in the early 1960’s, Kiki dressed up once a year for tourists and sang in a pageant celebrating the return of swallows to the Mission San Juan Capistrano. It was a big deal in that town—the population of 3,000 began swelling a day or two before, when tourists and reporters started showing up to look for what everyone imagined to be scouts, brief circles in the sky arriving early to check the condition of year-old mud nests. The human population easily doubled or tripled on March 19, the Feast of Saint Joseph, when finally hundreds of swallows might sweep across the sky above the mission. Visitors walked the gravel paths between fountain and garden, cactus and bougainvillea, past the old row of general stores within the mission walls that used to outfit the military and conduct trade with Indians 200 years before. Depending on the year, the returning flock was heavy and conspicuous, making wild, photogenic S’s in the hazy spring air. Or the flock was light, only to be joined by more birds a day or two later. On bad years like that, tourists stared after the sky, over the tops of oak and eucalypti, and they commonly mistook pigeons for the real thing.
As students of the mission school, Kiki and others all got into the spirit of the day in one way or another. Her brothers each dressed up in black shoes, black pants, and a white long-sleeved shirt. A red sash, a sort of cummerbund, divided each of them at the waist. Kiki and her friends wore embroidered blouses and skirts ruffled wide and high as gravity would allow. On the only day of the year they let their mothers put lipstick on them, Kiki’s brothers and his friends stood ready with other members of their class to sing Spanish and Mexican folk songs, as well as the early 20th-century standard "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," all the lyrics too far gone now to remember. They were a sight walking to the bus stop. Once at school, they were happy to take their turn with other classes by marching from the school grounds to the mission grounds—both encircled by the same wall but separated by a snarl of walks and corridors only the priests, nuns, and students knew the secrets of—and up to their proper place on risers near a pond covered with lily pads. They’d sing their hearts out and smile for the cameras. One year, they made the front page of the Los Angeles Times.
While the mission was an historical landmark that drew a steady flow of visitors during the rest of the year, nothing matched the traffic it got on Swallows Day. On most days, the grounds were mainly quiet, a place for slow, thoughtful walking. Visitors in twos and threes examined a 150-year-old olive tree, or the ruin of the first church damaged in the 1880 quake. Make a turn, and there’d be a small grove of trees and the graves of early pastors. Make a turn, and the first vegetable garden in that part of California would still be producing. Pigeons sunned themselves and made their gulping noises in the bright areas, and from the eaves of the porticos swallows curved out in search of meals and mud for their nests. At the opening to those nests—a hollow the size of a small cantaloupe—young birds looked out and down, cheeping for the parent or at human beings. Before the grounds opened to the public, the narrow and deep adobe chapel opened at 7:00 a.m. for early Mass, said in Latin and framed by Mexican processional and recessional hymns in praise of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Most of the teaching nuns attended, as did some people from town, and some students who arrived on the early bus. It was an ancient home for ancient ritual.
Meanwhile, Kiki’s grandfather and she hoped the swallows would leave their house alone. Sometime during winter, they had hosed off the eaves on the shady north side of their house, dislodging empty nests with a long, upward stream from the hand sprayer. If they hadn’t discouraged them enough by then, or gotten rid of new nests just as they were forming, a family of birds would build a home there for a season, and maybe for the next 200 years. Exiting the back door, the two might feel they were being watched. If they looked up, they’d find one or more heads gazing at them—curious bishops. Kiki supposed later that the swallows kept that part of the yard free of bugs, and they were more blessed than they knew, but her grandfather and she felt defeated anyway.
Kiki left the mission school to enter the first eighth grade of a new Catholic school six miles away. The playground was a graded dirt lot and the church parking lot an unfolding of black asphalt and nothing more. She wouldn’t find anything resembling those quiet mission grounds until she went to college, where the campus buildings and their layout were designed in the same traditional style. It was there, in her early 20’s, she developed a generalized stage fright that took a long time to come to terms with. She wrote poems and read Maslow. She read Lao-Tze. She discovered the Grateful Dead, Paul Robeson, and Epictetus simultaneously.
You think you leave those places of your youth where you first discovered quiet. Or you forget how you can be affected by a mystery as simple and provocative as why birds flying thousands of miles from Chile arrive to the same air on the same day every year. And then, it occurred to Kiki, you remember that many years later, as a woman of 27 and quite irrelevantly, you quit smoking cigarettes on the Feast of Saint Joseph. And suddenly there’s a new reason to remember a certain day of the year when you breathed easier and sang fearlessly and did not wonder where your strength was coming from.