The Saturday Rumpus Essay: The Living Wound

By

 

 

 

When I walk downhill I strike the ground with the front of my foot and the meat of my leg shakes and I feel wonderful.

I see

Arrow-grass
Coyote-mint
Pale flax

and I feel my ancestors riding on my shoulder blades. It’s an easy ride, like a fiat luxe with a driver that tries to feel your pain, process it, internalize it—bury it. The

Woodsorrel
Sun-cups
Ribwort

like my ancestors, your ancestors, ancestors everywhere hanging on to shoulder blades, hanging on to genomes, cheekbones, all mottled bones growing up in plant fiber—I wanna know

What did they do?

In the color changing forget-me-nots, six thousand of them come up again. Allergenic comeuppances, they are a-six-thousand-strong field of death after that tropical cyclone in Texas, year: 1900. They are our great and our great-great and our great-great-great grandparents who died in that whorl of wind and water.

Others hunkered down and lived, visited the field, picked flowers and

went to World War I
became a tree of olives
bud of oleander
carob pods
tufts of Aleppo pine

Their kids went to World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam where they took peyote and cannabis, inhaled the field of poppies and rose with wingéd ancestors in those wars, which became more wars where other ancestors fell.

Before they died they scattered seed and picked the foreign flowers, ripped ‘em up in reverie, collapsed against the pinus densiflora.

But not all ancestors go to war.

They die of

sickness
age
accidents
and broken hearts

They love peace as much as they are willing to rebel
They want peace as much as they have to fight

But the ones in unwilling war among fescues and the needlegrass, they become the various facets of the diamond-faced young America. They meet one another in the “Border War” of 1910 and the “Crazy Snake Rebellion” of 1909.

 

The Crazy Snake—a skirmish over one farmer’s stolen meat.

 

The militia went for the Creek Indians, but they didn’t find that smoked meat. Instead, it got in the mouth of a real-bear, Blackfoot sticky mouth with a maw stuffed full of huckleberry. All that coastal coffee berry, all that prickly pear cactus and some of those Creeks with no stolen meat came like Mexican rebels to the invisible border where they leapt fast. They learned how, then, to get onto your shoulder blades like ragweed spore.

The particular ‘Crazy Snakes’ who didn’t die in 1909 had more and more babies

whose babies had babies

that grew into you and your neighbor. They’re not just on your shoulder blades, but in your blood. You know it when you look in your baby’s eye, I bet. Like right now, see how you ache and tickle in the marrow of your bones? Ancestors need a scratch, a stretch sometimes, too. Some of them, they’re up under your shoes like sacred dirt: minerals in sidewalk, snap of an ice plant between the pointer finger and the thumb, just oozing out scent, looking sharp in a stem as you pass

Poison hemlock,
the English daisy

Wait.

We forgot about all those ancestors who were hanging around before year 1900? They must not be forgotten. Let us ask them about The New Year, those first fresh days of 1811…

Goosebumps, I say. Dead. They were dying right then

in an uprising

and how about later that year, in the November-time, during Tecumseh’s War? The War of 1812 and the Creek War? The First Seminole War, The Texas-Indian wars. The Arikara, Winnebago, Black Hawk, Second Seminole wars? In those wars full of cape ivy and cudweed, in the Mexican-American, the Cayuse, Apache, Puget Sound, Rogue River, Third Seminole, Yakima, Mormon, Diné wars—they were bleeding, bleeding, dying the dirtying dirt. Or were they having hide-and-seek for babies and adult masquerade parties? Because I heard that in 1830, the world was markets, baseball games, Christmas hams, new suits.

But that’s all mixed in with the First and Second Cortina Wars, the Paiute War—just seems so bloody, going molten, cold, like Christmas parties and basic snow and dying.

Not really interesting
________And I know you forget
______We all forget

from the Paiute War to our twentieth century cyclone, a great many of our ancestors fell on sweet American soil. That American Civil War, we heard about that, and it went on soaking straight into the Yavapai War. The frontier dying went from the 1862 Dakota to Red Cloud’s; from the Comanche Campaign to the Modoc; our ancestors fought in the Red River War,

the Las Cuevas War
in Little Crow’s
the Buffalo Hunters’
Nez Perce
San Elizario Salt
Bannock
Cheyenne
Sheepeater Indian
Victorio’s
Ute
Garza,
Yaqui

In these and, Other Wars—they were a big old fell-and-fight
war after war after war

It’s like California blackberry and redwood chips. Or, actually, it’s not like those things, it’s just that their dying-matter composted into the redwood organics. Just, those leaves of the Arroyo willow are them. Or maybe it’s like spirits that wave and tell you it’s time to move and migrate after all those many many wars. Those wars and many other wars, all where the US fought: they tell of Tripoli, Libya, Greece; the Sultanate of Aceh, Fiji, China; Fiji again, Mexico, Mexico, Mexico, Mexico; Brazil, Mexico a fifth time, Samoa; the Philippines, China a second time—those are just some US wars that informed the soil composition, all the plants. Your ancestors don’t really have time to tell you about it, because they’re busy spurring you on in your walk. They’ve got to show you something, some lily.

Look, there

Those ones on the tamarisk and beach strawberry went out in a bursting dam. That’s why they’re so obsessed with being coastal. In more and more tropical cyclones, in shipwrecks, heat waves, fires, hurricanes, they swam in the sound waves of dying like total pros. Fifteen thousand ancestors perished in the Moroccan Agadir earthquake, full of loquat, framed in 1960s style acacias for the hair. Four million went floating in the China floods of 1931. They sunk the acorns that grew after two million swept away with the Yellow River flood in 1887. There were three hundred and seventy-five thousand in the Bhola cyclone perishing with poet’s jasmine and three hundred thousand larking in a cyclone of India bougainvillea, 1839. Two hundred and fifty thousand crumpled onto the dirt of the 526 Antioch earthquake where that Byzantine Empire cadmium bunched in crystals bulging like white wine grapes.

oh
that
Tamarisk
and
Beach strawberry

 

After all that death, survivors went elsewhere, sunk in sadness—or stayed, doesn’t matter. Any way you spin it, your ancestors GAVE YOU BLOOD. By that I mean their veins pumped life, left residue. They gave birth after the white smeary possibility of you, and you got through ancestor after ancestor after ancestor until you started existing, as you, specifically, where you are among the plants and walks and river walks and things. Let’s take me for instance. Like a case study, kind of.

My name is Chelsea. It means “By the Sea.” It ends s-e-a. I have learned how to hear a spot calling to me when I am walking, how to sit and not question it with my chills-all-the-time, ever-sneezing ancestors prickling my blood, leaking water out of my eyes, hanging out like breeze in the swirls of walker’s wind-hair. Since 1845, that time of baseball and war and markets and boom-bust boom-bust/since manifest destiny, people have been taking nature walks and I like to walk, just like them. Nothing new, but I am light as air like Via Doloroso orchids, even going 40 mph with the train on my way to the snack car, over-caffeinated when I disembark, I am dizzy with possibility, very specifically enjoying my life among the trees on my walk where there is

Ryegrass
Bluegrass
Saltgrass
Cheatgrass

all the silver hair grass waving

 

Sometimes, very rarely, my ancestors get heavy. Then I go falling down on the soft, light grass. It stops waving. I crush it. My air spirit tumbles back into my body where it meant to go, vacates the spot it meant to be standing amongst the art at museums I like, where I’ll avoid running into people and cry over nothing behind a tree instead and it

won’t seem reasonable

My ancestors gave me a dream from the ocean

It recurs, making me think of my ancestors in the tropical cyclones. In the dream, waves in the ocean crash against mighty buildings. I’m up above, on a mountaintop, where I know I’m safe, but I can’t help from seeing all that’s left,

all the wreck and the ruin

Or if I’m not s-e-a Chel-sea, I’m a spider web, imperfect, trembling on the brown blouse in the basement of my mother’s house. I’m the air misting on my mother’s face, her sweater, her hair, she’s looking wet like a skier.

Another way of saying it: I’m a strangled branch reaching up a hill, moving sidelong, creating a sea of green moss all over myself as I repeat into one hundred more mossy roots. I watch someone standing above me, at the top of the hill. It begins to snow, I get covered in snow, I am all slope sloping downward at the same time I slope up just

Lupine lupine lupine
Everlasting pine like a .gif loop

I’m at a slant to myself and someone is over me, standing bold on the limb of the world where the top of the hill undulates slowly, banks of snow before a diamond slope.

I am a diamond difficult slope and they ski me

Pine needles move like toothbrush bristles on the coats of skiers, of ancestors, of ME. Now I am the people on the hill. The roots, they grew into the feet. I thought it was raining, but it was the droplets melting off branches. The wind shook the tree, blew powder and water everywhere. The drops fell, but the tree wasn’t felled.

It was just shook, I was shook

The sod massage of the ground underneath my feet, it’s my baby, the little tiny bushes and I’m walking, I’m walking, I’m getting the chills, I’m up. I’m going to the museum.

“Ahh,” I discharge the air.

Like a California poppy on the brink of war where all those ancestors who were sweet and sometimes sour and all that died in war war war war war, in cylone cyclone cyclone, in earthquake earthquake, in floods, in massacre, in rebellion, in sickness, health.

Their wound is living inside

 

Mission Bells
Slim Solomon
Century plant
Red hot poker

 

The not-nothing nothing figures in the ripple and chill of my backbone at the base of the tree. My shoulder blades are a walking wound of spirit that does not threaten, because you and I, we have got the ancestors.

We are standing in the building looking at the wreck and the ruin. Our friends are everywhere. We weep when they weep. Laugh when they laugh, even when we do not see them, full as we are, we are with them, sending them

 

Seaside sedge
Manroot
Spearsickle, Wild radishes

 

When I get emptied out, I look around: where are you, my friends, ancestors? Where is my special tree that I can lean against? I see them on your shoulder blades, in your goose bumps, in your smile, eyes.

 

“I’m open,” says my meadow. “Just fill me up!”
I do. I lay down in it. I fall sleep. I wake up, for my foot has fallen asleep.
I shake it.

“Wake up!” I say. “Wake up!”

***

Photographs provided by author.


Chelsea Hicks Bryan is a fiction writer and songwriter living in Berkeley, California. She hails from Virginia by way of Oklahoma and currently studies creative writing at The University of California-Davis. She is an enrolled member of the Osage tribe, and her work has been published at The Believer Logger and The Rumpus. More from this author →