Read the introduction by guest editor Matt Bell.
Excerpts from Girl, Cow, Monk
Yesterday I practiced combining the stars into a mass larger and brighter than the sun.
Less than half a hemisphere, I told the sun when she was noon, when she was closest to reaching through me.
Remember that, I told her.
The cow’s great, pale body. Sharp hips. Long ears, sweet ankles. Could I have found a different one? An older one, who knew how to be milked?
What choice was there when my mind said now?
I see schools of sardines sleeping in shallows. Their bodies hang, not touching, swaying as if on a mobile. Light builds, fish stir. They begin their long roping swim, the sun barely catching their scales. Huge tunas and barracudas know our shadows, our limbs, and the elongated points of our spears.
I look back and take in the pine trees, the wide spaces between them. I see all the way to the houses, to the dark shapes of them. White egrets sleep in high nests, their mating plumage long and thin, wispy from their chests.
The fishermen should be finishing the last of their bitter root coffee and whatever egg or smoked fish they saved for breakfast.
Come, cow, I say to her. I need a name for you.
Samira, I tell her. You’ll be Samira.
She blinks her dark eyes resists stepping into the water past her knees. She pulls her head back and looks long toward her pen.
The night before I left, I said a prayer to the sea to bring me good dreams.
Let me know something of the next months, I said.
Let me know something of the coming year.
I prepared my bed, made a circle of flour around me. The sea did not tell me anything. I did not dream.
The rainbow clams try to burrow into my hand. I feel their feet pressing into the fleshly part of the thumb. They continue to try even though my hand gives them resistance. In their minds, they continue to push because everything must give. They do not know what to do without pushing.
They stop and hang suspended in the wet sand. I wonder if I’ve killed them. Worn their little hearts out. Burst their lungs. I spread the sand thin so I can see their shapes and the pastels: purple, pink, blue, white, cream, yellow, orange. They are all there, about double the size of a grain of rice.
I put my hand into the water, just under the surface. The motion sways them out of my hand as the silt filters, becoming less and less sand and more and more water until my hand is empty. I brush it with the other to get the last bit of sand out of the folds.
If the clams survive, they will sink to the floor and again bury, this time to a place that will support them. If I killed them by not being sand, by being a hand that did not give, they will float and move through the shallows until they sink and rest on the bottom instead of in it.
I dive my hands into the sand to find crabs. I feel a large one push away from my hand. It gets away. I scoop two large handfuls of sand and again feel animals pushing down, trying to find darkness and to be in a place that is right for their bodies.
The water is like that for me, but not entirely. When I am in it, I am not of it. The water repels me. You can look at it both ways. It supports me too.
I fear a sky-beaten, salt-bloated Samira dead on the beach. I have nothing to give her.
Days ago, days. My feet on the bottom of the tub felt the voices of my family on the first floor. The soles felt the sounds as words, but since the foot is not an ear, the foot could not translate.
They felt the pulsing punctuation of my mother’s singing to the pair of sparrows she kept in an iron cage near the front window. That window got the best, most direct light and the birds bring the light into the cage of the house. My feet could not pick up their low trill and love hum of their beaks as they cleaned and bit the other.
Every now and again my brother’s affirmation or some other solid single syllable came through. My father was not home so I did not hear my father. His sounds are like my mother’s: counted and paced like a recital for when the fish begin to change patterns and cannot avoid the nets. The sounds are caught in the spaces designed to catch them. Fish as words, as sounds.
I released my head from between my knees and returned to the full rush. The first sound I heard was the sea. The second was my body shifting in fresh water. I cannot go anywhere without water following.
The star-shaped one, the triangle, the precise spokes of another.
The basic circle. The quatrefoil.
And my favorite, the corona Anthony seldom removes, the crescent tight around the bald dome of his skull; the corona that is almost blue instead of golden. Blue in the way of glaciers—both blue and not. Both colorless and sky-full.
It is smallest, but it illuminates the hollows under his dark eyes, catches the white hairs in his eyebrows, glides down the slope of his nose, and shadows the philtrum before curving light over his bottom lip.
His light brings my eyes up from the tilled rows of the garden or from the neat lines of our prayers. Brings my eyes up to meet his, which are also raised instead of humbled.
His eyes assess me coolly before he returns to peeling beets. His hands bleeding purple-red around skinned globes.
Anthony wounds the largest cedar, the one just outside the clay walls of his monastery. His peeling knife flicks at the knobby bark, not deep, but enough to bring resins—the tree’s way of healing itself– to the surface.
He keeps watch over our pharmacy, dispenses small balls of the sticky red resin when someone is sickened. When placed in warm water, it dissolves into a fragrant tea that speaks to the offending pith inside a body. Speaks to it and sends it on.
His personal garden is small and filled with skullcap and lemon balm. Tonics for nerves. I wonder if the light his body emits is fed by these herbs or if they feed only the parts the light does not know. Like the back of his earlobe dusted with loam after a distracted hand brushed away a fly. What did the light know of how I wanted to reach and make that skin clean?
I hear the men walking in step behind me. The eldest swats me on the nape of my neck with his robe’s tassel. It stings, and I am back.
Silence means the click of thumbnail against wooden rosary, the turning of thin pages, the crack of old knees genuflecting. The scrape of metal spoon against ceramic bowl.
The shuffle, the limp, the hustle of ambulation.
Coughs, sneezes, sniffles.
Silence means the wet hesitation of resistance a potato makes with each pass of the knife. The dry rip of collard greens removed from their stalk.
It is hearing a throat swallowing milk. A throat swallowing tea.
The dry sockets of teeth chewing bread.
It is hearing the air around hands as they perform ritual, as all men move in the same pattern. A touch to the forehead, to the heart, to the shoulders. As hands come together to touch palms.
Silence means hearing the fabric around our bodies, the swish of robes. It is the strike of a match and the fizz of flame catching. Of breath ending flame before it reaches fingers.
The moon-fed movements of the ocean and its response through the cedars.
The falling of those cedar’s needles or the thump of the cones.
And always the tsk tsk of straw brooms cleaning some corner, some hallway.
Silence means hearing bodies turning in narrow beds, the scrabble of mice feet and the muted whoosh of a raptor.
This silence meant I was not alone.
My first winter Anthony could not find a fever in me. There was no headache, no body aches. But I could not leave my bed.
He took my jaw in his right hand and stuck out his tongue, miming what he needed me to do. I compiled, watching his eyes scan my tongue for ridges, papules, and coatings to see where my blood was moving and were it was stuck.
Satisfied, he released my jaw and stepped away.
I had been eating soda crackers and thin broth. Using a bed pan like an elderly monk. I had been watching my sleepless self appear in outline on the wall as the sun rose. If I had wanted to, I could have talked to this shadow.
Anthony appeared with a small packet of dried mushrooms, licorice root and tiny rose buds. On a slip of paper he had written the correct ratio of material to hot water and the frequency of consumption.
His eyes did not ask after me. Cry into your pillow is what his shoulders said.
The sickness lifted, but my brain felt slow and damaged, blunted and shallow, for weeks.
I watched him weed dandelions from a row of cabbage. His trowel went in deep, at the angle he taught me, so the trowel would lift and cut the root. He wrapped a handkerchief around the seeded head so the fluff wouldn’t spread, carefully, as if capturing a trapped bird. He placed the root in a bucket reserved for his medicines and folded the seed head into his pocket.
There was a spasm in the movement of his wrist. A moment when something else passed through and was gone.
He turned to me, his six coronas glowing. I felt their light on my downturned face. I did not look up.
Later, I passed by his door to see if the silence contained him.
I had dreams of speaking the first weeks.
I did not hear what the eldest monk said, but I saw his mouth lower to Anthony’s right ear, and I saw the mouth move. Anthony’s eyes rose to meet the monk’s. They stayed there until the monk turned and left down the darkened hallway.
Yellow calendula staining my fingers.
He pushed himself back from the table, upsetting the tinctures. His robes around his body in a noisy vortex.
His light made a candle unnecessary.
The bell tower housed sea gulls who circled and cried when I disturbed them. The coronas turned to look, to watch the white bodies in the sky, to see what could have woken them.
He again started into the cedars, down the path that he had worn to the stream that fed into the ocean. And then the coronas were moving separately from his body– the triangle skipping across the surface of the stream. It bounced twice before spinning and sinking into the current. He tried again with the circle and got four skips before the light sunk and traveled downstream.
The two points of lights moved with the dark water and were out of sight. I stood on the railing to look towards the ocean, to see if I could catch them merge into that body. My hand slipped, and I struck the bell with my full weight.
The old clapper rang against the metal and I felt it through my teeth, conducting through my blood into the hollows of my chest.
I felt sound opening silence, peeling it back again and again as it announced my frailty.