Before the Desert
How does a photograph sound as
it is taken from a wooden desk drawer?
Not its pine planks rolling on aluminum tracks
in the back of Miguel’s office,
nor the treads of his white sneakers
as he crosses the linoleum floor
to show me one of his brothers, Rigo,
whose bones lay somewhere in the desert,
in that borderless stretch where water jugs
hide amidst the brittle shade of nopales.
It’s a common story back in the States —
those who spend their earnings on beer,
their families never to hear from them.
But before I could even dare to ask,
‘How are you sure?’ Miguel said some compañeros
had called months after to tell: “He could not
walk any longer,” they simply said, “And we
had to keep moving.” How
does a photograph sound when it is passed
into your hands? Not the plastic gasp —
the glossy Kodak rectangle as it bends —
but the sounds of market goers outside.
He, Rigo, stands in front of a gift shop.
I know the storefront, just two blocks from here.
Pink and white stuffed bears, black-eyed puppies,
and glossy umbrellas sized for little girls
hang behind him in the showcase window.
His hands are in his pockets. Although
he seems at peace, he does not exactly smile.
He wears a white Adidas hoodie
and one of those knitted caps with the brim
turned back. How does someone look
in a photograph when he already has plans
to leave? And how does the photographer sound
when she asks her youngest son if he might pause
in the street, in front of that gift shop, just
two blocks from here, to take a picture?
And, anyhow, what do you say
as an American writer “working” here
in Guatemala, who comes from New Mexico,
who has hiked through that desert and seen
the jugs of water camouflaged in the cactus shade?
“Lo siento,” you mumble. I feel you.
‘I am so very sorry,’ you think in English,
and it sounds a bit
like a photograph being passed and placed back
in a desk drawer, the aluminum tracks
slide as it opens and closes.
Mostly the silence, though, and a few footsteps
from the market goers outside.
An endless field of green
surrounded on all sides.
Neighbors to the left and right.
My house behind. Straight ahead —
the woods. Some. A treeline.
The rattling — the cries and yelps —
from that yard behind the pines.
The Lovings’ collie, Missie,
tied to a dead oak.
One day, my brother and I
hacked down our wooden swing set
with axes. Salvaged
the swings, the rope ladder,
and tied them to high limbs
in the woods. We looked out:
the Loving’s yard, Missie,
her radial panic,
the whole street. All the backyards
mowed, hedged, fenced-in.
Then the branch snapped.
I ended up on my back,
my brother climbing down,
sunlight cutting through the gaps.
Now Missie is a living
witness to my childhood:
my crippling fall from our hideout.
And that’s it, doesn’t matter
if dogs have memories.
She saw it, brother,
and I remember
she was frantic, jumping
her neck bent back, choked —
her strangled howls grating
against the streaming sunlight,
sliced and glorious.