Memory (Winifred Mumbles)

i remember. the smell of water on dust. the sound of birdsong in the soft morning light. the chiaroscuro texture of resin beads on juniper needles.

i remember walking. walking. walking. mama at my side. 

i remember heat. and death. i remember the lost.

i remember coming to this place.

it’s been seven decades by my reckoning. which is all there is as there aren’t any other records. seven decades since we clambered into this valley, exhausted by the heat, the endless, waterless, empty waste, and found a river. and trees. and birds. and other people. it’s been seven decades of living. all the living allotted to most people. and yet here i endure.

the churros laugh at my nostalgia. hens just don’t care. and the wind… the wind always keeps its own counsel, has its own agenda. the record of which is piled up against the garden fence and dumped on window ledges like coded messages.

i believe it’s my birthday. once it was common to celebrate a birth, to remember that day for the rest of your life. as if you had anything to do with it. mothers should be honored for on the birthdays of their children. possibly fathers, though they don’t give as much blood.

i love this place. it is my home. i know how fragile that word is. home. so many in this fractured world, wandering, running, fleeing. without rest. i remember those endless, restless days. waking to a new horizon every sunrise. and walking, leaving that horizon far behind before sunset. the shifting alliances, the constant flux of faces and names. never friendship. though there were bonds. but never home.

unrooted all. 

but here. there is sand and wind and heat, but these are constants. in a whole world of transmutation. here there are roots in the soil. there is soil, not merely dirt under the fingernails. there is clay molded into pot and oven and walls. standing solid in the sun. older than me. older than dirt in some cases.

these things are rare. i know. we walked for ten years. only stumbled upon them by chance. a quirk of fate. following the wrong tracks, they said. maybe they were trying to hide something. days of following that wrong path and there was a canyon, a cleft in the wall of rock that spread to the northern and southern horizons. deep and dark even at midday. we walked in wonder into that hidden world. and we walked out into this valley.

there were houses. not merely tents and ramshackle salvage camps. there were people going about the business of living. there were things to do in one place to make up a day. there was a fixed horizon. mountain shelter to the sunrise, volcano to the west. river in the center of it all.

things to be grateful for: wild water and solid rock.

welcome, they said, in all their different languages. welcome home. and so we stayed put. disorienting after years of disorientation. to not move after a decade of movement was difficult. even my child’s mind felt the strangeness. the feet used to shifting ground now unsteady on firm soil. there are stories of sailors who couldn’t walk on land, so used to a rocking deck were they. we were shipless sailors, sea legs without an ocean. home was hard.

but we stayed. mama and i. we climbed into the foothills. since we couldn’t help but wander a bit even as we stayed. we wandered in circles within the same horizons. exploring this new fixed idea of place. and we found this place. abandoned but living all the same.

now there are neighbors.

back then, there were crumbling roads and collapsed walls. sand shrouded memories of human habitation. but apple trees, alive with intoxicating blossoms. almonds blushing pink with promises. and peaches, apricots, wild cherries. a miracle of cultivation in the midst of blowsy scrubland. these things will persevere, mama said. and so we claimed a crumbling home.

we propped and mudded, shifted sand out of doors, evicted rodents and roaches and all many of things we weren’t willing to sleep with. made fences. moved plants. uncovered hidden wonders. the well. the horno. the turbine. built to withstand the corrosion of collapse, the long decades of neglect.

we were grateful to the souls who built these things. we built a shrine to these ancestors and grafted our wandering feet to their roots.

for seven decades i have risen to greet the same sun. and wind. and sand.

i am molded by this land. skin rough and wrinkled from too little rain. back and legs sturdy, muscles firm. there is work to be done. every sunrise. it is the work of living. it is good work. the kind that nourishes. the kind done in hope. but it is work, nonetheless, and it has demands of the body. suppose it has kept me strong. me and my rooted neighbors.

i don’t remember old people before we came to this place. being unrooted, occupationless, apparently takes its toll. or maybe it’s the despair of a new sunrise every morning. the uncertainty of the next meal in an uncultivated land. i don’t remember grey hair. perhaps it’s my memory at fault. been known to happen, after all. but there aren’t any stories. i did not learn the word “grandmother” until we came to this place. i never knew mama’s mother and she rarely talked of the past. hard to keep track of such things when there are no tracks, just wandering time.

but now i am old. i am old in an old land. it is a matter of pride. look at the living here. look at the living i’ve accomplished. look at this long memory of place and fixed roots and same sunrises. i am old and yet my place came before me. this is the shelter of the soul. a bulwark against time. home.

there are stories of heroic adventure, unbounded love, mythical passion. there are stories of great deeds. there are stories of seeking and searching and striving. and yet…

there are few stories of home. in my language anyway. it may not be true of others. old languages from old lands are probably different. more sensibly rooted. but in my shifting ancestry there are no celebrated roots, no settled tales, no closed doors and same suns. once old, you notice this lack, this deficit of knowing. my culture is uncultivated. my ancestors did not honor theirs, nor did they abide in their ancestral wisdom. they did not have a homeland. it is this that nearly destroyed the world.

maybe if they’d told more stories of place-making, of life well-lived, of age in place, of same suns, maybe there wouldn’t be all this loss and wandering. maybe they would have lived and loved and made memory and story and myth. rather than death and annihilation. perhaps others have found their places in those seven decades since i last left this valley. i do hope that. it is my wish for the world, that humans find their way home. better for the humans. much better for the world.

maybe if they’d done that i wouldn’t be here in this place. don’t know that i’d be at all. and yet that would be an acceptable trade. me for all the living that could not happen because humans could not find their place in it. me for all the suffering and death. gladly.

things to wish for: time machines.

i remember the lost. 

i remember what i have found.

i am old. and grateful.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021