She told it
once, herself.
First, servant
in the ashes,
goose girl.
Struggle with dirt
the common element
of death
holding at bay the slow
of time on objects,
constant washing--
potatoes, floor, the children, even
Work keeps you whole,
holds you together through
the drought and losses.
Always the prince arrives
from a distant land
struck, at once,
by beauty in disguise.
The prince is not disguised.
She never needs to find
him by his foot size
but knows him easy--
young man in a blue shirt
riding up on horseback
or tall, straw-hatted,
threshing wheat.
She wouldn't look for him
at dances,
loves dancing for its own sake,
measured patterns changing,
embroidering an evening,
and partners
coming round the chaining circle.
How could she tell which one of these
had sought her?
They leave no memories--
her brightening eye may not
be for the one she knows.
Married in plaid--
red, green, and yellow--
for passion of the earth,
green springing shoots,
searing light,
falling like bands
across the long, flat land.
She once supposed the princess
was the real one,
then she would be all herself
claimed by the prince home
to her birthright;
odd how the ohter woman lingered. . .
there is a day when easy
transformations cease,
the image facing in her mirror
strange now, and new--
gaunt woman, sun-marked,
laughter-signed, grief-ridden.
(There is work and there is laughter
make a story true.)
At eighty-two she pieced a quilt
old craft still in her fingers;
she danced again at eighty-three,
to show that she had not forgotten.

Notes of a Woman, Crossing to Oregon

I. Home Letter
Hardd to remember how we left you,
and yet, before was harder,
when we determined going.
Neighbors drew aside to leave
the road out open, and home
was nowhere, then, unless
in your hands holding us
and letting go,
raised in boodby.
Do not mistake me when I say
that I am glad to think how well
you are prepared for death, your faith
and expectation. The distance lessens
every day between us, though we move
steadily from there.
It comforts me that all our travels
end the same.
Along our way, we bury any bones we find
unearthed by wolves, read names
scratched on roadside rocks--
so many and not one we know.
We've added ours.
These last days we have met Sioux
hunting parties; they travel for a life,
so everywhere they stop is home
to them, and carry little.
They lose less than I will
on the way.
First days, I willed hard to see
close by, variety of stem, blade, flower.
My eyes kept following the grasses
flowing one great river to the sky,
and I was drowning in the way
the prairie lay the same for miles
and for a center just our chain
of wagons, never lessening
nor measuring the distance out
to the horizon.
All the time, of course, we travel
blindly, deepening the tracks
that prove our road.
Curious to think I will not recognize
my home when I have come there,
each valley that we cross, to ask,
"shall we stay here?"
But I have heard the first trees
that we plant will bear hard, small fruit,
deeply flavored.
II. The Eating
Dry heat and salt provision us
for the long travelling. We eat
such foods as cure our bodies down
to most impermeable flesh. When we began,
my feeding pride lay deep in bags of flour,
beans, in casks of pickles, salted pork, dry
strips of buffalo. So I conserved
our lives, and do so still,
but day by day I tire of chewing heaviness,
so bend to scoop the prairie alkali
to leaven bread, gather the difficult fruits
grown wild: tiny god currants, chokecherries
hugging their central seed.
Enough of them will fill a mouth
with nearly wine, a savage sweet. Seems
I parch, now, with sun and wind, as if
I ate a silence, long-preserved. Store words
away, dried peas under my tongue, hard
for the speaking. Good thing I do not cry,
or my face would be seamed with salt
down to the bedrock bone. I hunger most
for things that rise--pale, smooth
dough lifting yeasty under cloth, green sprouts
unfolding crisp from earth. Could almost
wish to eat the grass, like cattle. Most of all,
for strong square stems of mint, pushing up
springside, fragrant under foot, gracious
to the thirsty tongue.
III. Divide
Missouri River crossed, earth
spreads four ways, wide to pendent sky;
familiar boundaries dissolve, sharp
lines between states, city and countryside,
or property by person. Only isolate forts,
before Oregon, mud-walled, mushroom
on the plain. Mirages, no
perpendiculars where corners meet. These
are the tribal grounds, called by new names,
no fences.
Let oxen fall, their drivers
combine teams, force one wagon
family full, set some walking
or on horseback. This rolling line
of wagons heaves like river, currents
separate--ahead, hard pressing, restless
souls; slower, who wait out sabbath days,
fall back.
Day warmth slides out with sunset;
colder nights call down the stars
outside the rim of campfire-blackened sky.
New air, new altitude bewilder
distances. Close looming hills make miles
of walking, on approach. Along their sides
lines mark where old seas ebbed or scattered
shell long turned dry stone.
Snow five days far on mountainsides,
the sixth springs a small glacier
right at roadhand.
The continent divides so gradually
that few identify the crossing
until they find cold springs run west or look
back at the long slope down to them.
A way to find true summit: wait
for rain and watch small waters flow
toward different seas.
But this is temporary.
I choose evening, lean
against the wagon wheel, watch night
across the plains drift toward me, small winds
rising. Sit half unseen, in miles of darkness,
smell of dust, of dying fires, moist tang
from grass and sage after the wiltin
day. For weeks lay flat in wagon bed, while
road, hollow, rut and stone, vibrated in my body.
Drank thin light, strained through canvas, water
pale, All day, the muffled calls to animals, murmur
of talk filtered through my fabric vault and hummed
like echoes. I chewed the quilt
to keep from spasming, wrapped down sheer sympathy
of motion. Listened.
(Can remember my old room, greenwalled, soft green
that clung to back of throat; white filmy curtains
cobwebbed the windows, catching sunfall as if it were a summer
droning fly. Damp August heat, the marrow of a listless bone,
no strength to shift an arm, to make a word. Felt
all unuttered cries a sediment seep down. This weary
body, invalid, could not think past the walls.)
But now I ride the sorrel mare. She walks deliberate, so
I feel each step like sap run up my spine, the grace
of daylong riding. Would each day shed more wrappings--
do this in thought until I'm minded to sit naked
on her noonday back. An easy progress; still, I show
all sedate claico, cicada husk to casual glance. I take up
frying pan, the coffee pot, the bread bowl, one by one, gather
my life again by smallest acts, the way blind women piece
the dark into shapes of consolidation.

Prairie Fire

Last night
more prairie fires
vaulted the line between the earth
and sky.
Tall, dry summer
grasses, ripened for the fall,
cast out bursting seeds
across the dark.  
I watched the blaze from miles
away, for long, until the shoots of fire
leaped so familiar that they neighbored me.
I prayed:
that this wind should not turn
and sow the distance to my door
with flame.
A wild reflection
filled my room with light.
I could have taken up
the Bible here
and read how Moses
found his way across the wilderness
by fire.
Before that, too, the burning bush,
with maybe just the same throat-wrenching
bitter-sacrificial smell of sage.
The early morning sun
hangs embered, low
behind the smoke spread flat
down on the land like barriers.
Reminds me how I burn my
fallow days,
waiting to reap the promised land,
harvest this desert place.