The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Self-Portrait with Parts Missing and/or Smeared

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So who’s missing is the first question we’re asked. I’m inside my ten-year-old body inside the classroom that looks out on a hill we’ve all rolled down during spring. Our scratched desks clustered like little ponds. I’m sitting at my desk that opens & shuts like a mouth left empty for days. My teacher asks us, who’s missing today? My friend—who my body said last night I’ve fallen for—looks over at me as if finding an earring in the grass. Yesterday she asked me why I don’t have a father. The roll sheet is called out. We each say here when the teacher says our names. My name smears and smears my lips, growing into lilies and out the crevices of piled rocks. I hear my name and say here. I’m here.

i.

A first day means there was a never-day. A time in which the beginning starts not at one but zero. A zero is always open for the world to see. A little number like zero will always be a space into which we empty ourselves. It is the graveyard in which we bury our relatives just as the sun rises to lift their heads to wherever it they are intended to go. I’m twelve already in this part of the sequence, after hearing someone with the same name as my great-grandmother. I’m helping my great-grandmother down the stairs and she’s yelling at me—I can’t see! I can’t see! I look into her eyes and say, pú’x̣, can you see me? After the daylight moves its hand from the lip of the bottom stair up to the lap of another, she sees me. She says, I’m so sorry. I couldn’t see where I was going. I feel the music between each heartbeat because I’m the boy holding her hand in the last season of her life. Her eyes, I thought, were like zeroes. Wide enough to hold a life. To lose it.

i.

Today, I am barely more than a quarter of a century old. I am standing at the edge of the ocean watching a thunderstorm in slow motion—only because I imagine it that way. I imagine the flashes arriving like the face of someone I remember after years of trying to recollect who it is. The face has been inside every photograph I’ve ever carried. The skin is the organ that registers touch. We itch our skin. I ask the water reaching toward my ankles like prisoners of forced hunger, why don’t our bones itch? And why can’t we just shut down our skins. I see that I’ve been given my mother’s hands and my father’s face. So I cover my face with my palms. Yesterday, I watched a puddle and almost fell into the sky.

i.

I’m the boy again, tucked beneath long curved blades of cheatgrass. The men are looking for me. Let me say that again so you can hear me: the men are looking for me. Not who I am but my body. In their language, in their heads, in their blood, courses many versions of the same message that has moved to the edge of our homelands: the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Some of us have learned about Ezekiel and that long valley of dry bones: their lord said, Can these bones live? I ask myself this as it continues to rain and rain. It’s raining like a heaven of steel. Steel echoes. Echoes that can move past the walls of the body. The border—my skin—is waiting like someone holding their breath. I’m holding everything I can. I’m a nation with a language with people living and dying. My hands have merged with the dawn-colored water. Waiting for one shard—holding a stock number and rivets, a shell propelled—to splash me open. To stay. I want to stay. To carve out the exit from this one life into the next. I want the moaning to stop.

i.

He was only alive for as long as his body let him. Who is the boy standing in the living room without his socks on? I can’t imagine the mouth the same way, so the face reflects a little different now. The man in the kitchen still has a warmth to him. There is body heat like an ember dying out in the woods. I’m sorry this kitchen isn’t the same as we made it before: a clamshell resting on the table for cigarettes. A roll of sage we burn inside its iridescent curve to keep the ghosts satisfied—not to keep them away. The kitchen has changed again. The walls weren’t so cracked. Our bodies have cracks. He was alive and this close to destroying all of us. Forgive me for knowing that the room shattered in one life and didn’t in another.

i.

I’m a day old. Actual first name on record: Baby. Middle name: Boy. Last name: Wasson. Nice to meet you.

i.

Last week, I watched a man I knew dying in a language I couldn’t fully understand. I’m at the port with the sun falling on everyone through the windows. They’re inside the ship, floating like someone’s springtime in bloom—so much pollen entering our lungs, swelling our throats shut. We’re waiting for the village’s only doctor to arrive. I reach out my arm that isn’t there. To hold his wife as she’s screaming in her language—why won’t he come? Why won’t he come? My arm is the shadow touching hers. I’m trying to hold her up. To let her sound enter me and rattle the cage of my body. My standing there means I’m an insect husk before the cicadas even arrive to screech like feedback filling the air. My mouth is covered as the village’s only police officer tries to find the breath. Find the pulse. Pressing. Where is it? I’m whispering to nobody. To convince myself that a life will return here. I’m running and running. You don’t need arms to run.

i.

There is an animal inside me. I swallowed all the animals because I have surrendered to my hunger. There is an animal building a fire inside me. He’s climbing my ribs. Every animal is weeping about loneliness and the dark inside the body. It’s so dark here, they are whispering between each other like I can’t hear them. They’re there, I know, because I saw their light and movement and inhaled every one of them. Now this little animal is inside my chest. Does he know yet? I’m a monster. I’m the monster without a heart. ’ilcwéew’cix wen’ikíse ’iin. tim’nenúut, ne’é? There is a river running clean, trees and trees like bones rising from the earth and blossoming. There’s a valley. There’s no heart to cut down. What’s left but the ash smearing in my belly? When I open my slick maw, smoke opens into the air like song. A song I carry as I drag my animals along the earth.

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i.

The storm subsides. The rift I watched open in the sky is beginning to shut. The lightning takes its time, breathing and blinking into something like a sleeping god somewhere out over the ocean. Here I am on an island. My little location here. At the edge of the world. Nothing out there but a horizon full of stars I can no longer see. The hole is gone.

i.

I’m in your belly as it happens.

i.

So everyone’s here, my teacher asks. I’m in the classroom. The sunlight at the window cooled to an ochre-like orange, failing to climb inside. Number eighteen on the roll sheet. We nod as though a chorus agreeing with everything the priest says about grace and death and life and flesh and blood. When we are seated this way, at our desks, we are only torsos, heads, and arms. Beginning the day like any other day.

i.

There’s an animal inside me, he says. He pulls the trigger.

***

Featured Image: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Silence Series 2004, watercolor on paper, 31 x 22″
Second Image: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Blue Jay 1996, monotype, 22 x 15″


Michael Wasson is the author of This American Ghost (YesYes Books, forthcoming), winner of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest. His poems appear in American Poets, Narrative, Denver Quarterly, Passages North, and Bettering American Poetry. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives abroad. More from this author →