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TICKETS FOR A PRAYER WHEEL
By ANNIE DILLARD
WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 1974 Annie Dillard
All right reserved.
Chapter One Feast Days
Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a skip on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden. -Proverbs
Today I saw a wood duck in Tinker Creek. In the fall flood, look what the creek floats down: once I glimpsed round the edge of a bank a troupe of actors rained in from Kansas, dressed for comedy. The flood left a candelabrum on the lawn. With a ten-foot hook we fished from the creek a bunch of bananas, a zither, a casket of antique coins.
Or, in the creek I found a log, a tree trunk rotted halfway open. Lord, lover, listen: I remember kissing on the stair dancing in the kitchen- I crumbled the: wet wood away. Inside the tree a row of cells had grown, sealed chambers, smooth, elongate. I slit one open, found a book hand-bound in yellow thread: a child's book of wildflowers sketched in ink and washed with watercolors. Come take a walk, you said. And if I reached out my hand could feel your shoulders move, thin, under your shirt. What newness, what surprises! Once I dug a hole to plant a pine and found a ruby growing on a stone.
One thing we've got plenty of here on the continents issoil. Out of the soil the plants are taking substance, edges, like a tomato moving on its stake, ten pounds of tomatoes, and the ground blowing them up like balloons. We walk on the soil here on the continents among the plants, and eat.
Thanksgiving: the men are watching the game. I wash, and dry, and dream. I dream of a firelit room, a tipi of eighteen buffalo hides, of skins on the floor and smoke curling up the bark of the trunk of the lightwood lodgepole pine.
The Mandans in North Dakota along the Missouri, prayed, Go, flying birds, to the southern horizon, to the old woman who never dies. Return at the end of winter. Carry sunshine, carry water on your broad backs.
And in your beaks, and in your beaks, bring her blessing like a berry to the crops you symbolize- "The wild goose to the maize, the wild duck to the beans, the wild swan to the gourds."
Thanksgiving, creation: outside the great American forest is heaving up leaves and wood from the ground. Inside I stand at the window, god, with your name wrapped round my throat like a scarf. Today I've been naming the plants of the southern forest: arrowwood, witherod, hobblebush, nannyberry, and the loblolly, longleaf and shortleaf pine. Lean through the willow, look upstream, and see what's floating down! I see camels swimming with longdash, golden eyes. I see trunks and telescopes floating, a canopied barge with silk scarves flying, a peacock on each post, and three crowned kings inside. Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar, I suspect you're on to something.
You tell me your dream and I'll tall you mine. I dreamed I woke in a garden. Everywhere trees were growing; everywhere flowers were growing, and otters played in the stream, and grew. Fruit hung dawn. An egg at my feet cracked, opened up, and you stepped out, perfect, intricate lover. II Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? -John
December, and all its dark rains. The apples in the cellar are black, and dying inside their skins. They pray all night in their bins, but nobody listens; they will be neither food nor trees. Outside in the city the cop wants to dig out his earmuffs, the orange ones, and if it were snowing he might, but it's only rain. God send us the springtime lamb minted and tied in thyme and call us home, and bid us eat and praise your name. God am I smug when they talk about Belsen- I've never killed anyone in my life! I simply betray: let the phone ring, seal a typed letter, say to the girl in the courtyard, "I never saw him before in my life," call a cab, pull on gloves, and leave. And leave you, and leave you with the bill. "Home," I say to the cabby, "home, driver, to Tinker Creek. It's in Virginia." And he says, "Sorry, honey, you can't get there from here." "Then driver, please," I say, "put me to bed."
Take a hot bath; take a cold shower. In your mouth stick a silver spoon so you don't crack. Today you hurt your hand on the fireplace. Tonight a Chinook rose up from the south. And my mouth stuck shut, my belly shook, my eyes blinked hot, and I went to the window. There, stalking the lawn, white tipis, wraith-like, ranged. A smell of blood burned up. The moon braised down. Antlers hung in the trees. A thousand tipi doors lashed back, void, like riven graves. And in the creek, in Tinker Creek, a sky-high blackened hull rose up, a red-stacked ocean liner, sailing upstream. They're on the roof, naked, but I hear them. I remember reading in my room, just reading, and shutting the book, and looking up, and missing you, missing you, and reading the paper again. There's no freedom in it or in fear: my heart's not mine. Once I went to the door, and an old black woman was there, in a clown suit and a clown's peaked hat, and she carried a brown cloth bag. Once an ape trailed through the hall in my nightgown. Once I surprised in the bathroom the last of the Inca kings, tall Atahualpa, in his hand-stitched bat-skin robe. "Don't worry," I said. "It's all right," I said, and ducked. Oh, I've been here and there around the heart- a few night spots, really, the kind that call themselves "Rathskellers," dim-lit, always changing hands, and frequented on Sundays. By the regulars: mother in mink on the bar, father looking up the grate to the sidewalk, babies battling on the floor, some sort of red-eyed monk with a black-eyed mynah bird, a clown (that clown!)- and you, variously: weeping at the piano, eating fly-blown meat with a spoon, swirling a beer, and saying, "Marry me"; or "I read your letter (diary, palm)"; or "You don't understand." And then always, "Good-bye" (So long, Take care)- remember? And then I leave. I'm always the one who leaves. God send us the springtime lamb minted and tied in thyme and call us home, and bid us eat and praise your name. III
And the captain of the Lord's host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. -Joshua I love with my hand, not my heart. When I draw your face, my fingers trace your lips. Crossing a page, my hand keeps contours; I know that art is edges. I touch when I type. With every finger's tip I travel the weave of the given. Hand me a pencil, cut off my head, and I will draw you heaven. Thank you, Squanto, for the tip. I knew something smelled funny in Iowa: all that haddock, under the corn. Mound-builders, basketmakers, cliff-dwellers- all are gone to the sandhills. Remember Sand Creek! Remember Wounded Knee! Remember how to fish? You may have my salmon rights to Tinker Creek. Just keep off the roof; it's coming up Christmas. Under the water the wood duck feels with his foot in the creek. By day I cook, and we eat. At night your hand curls over my head, curls into my hair as you sleep. Hands curl up like leaves. My hand curls up from the fire to the tipi top and out. My hand curl's down the wood duck's throat. In the curl of my hand I hold com. I kick through a forest of hands by Tinker Creek. The sassafras hands wear mittens; the tulip tree hands demand money; "Wait!" cry the fraying hands of a frivolous silver maple, "I love you!" A cottonwood hand floats down the creek on its back, like Ophelia. And deep on the banks of the creek some hands uncurl; some hands unleaf, and damply become rich water, wild and bitter perfume, and loam, where bluets will bloom. So your hand, asleep in my hair, takes root, and flowers there. Let me mention one or two things about Christmas. Of course you've all heard that the animals talk at midnight: a particular elk, for instance, kneeling at night to drink, leaning tall to pull leaves with his soft lips, says, alleluia. That the soil and fresh-water lakes also rejoice, as do products such as sweaters (nor are plastics excluded from grace), is less well known. Further: the reason for some silly-looking fishes, for the bizarre mating of certain adult insects, or the sprouting, say, in a snow tire of a Rocky Mountain grass, is that the universal loves the particular, that freedom loves to live and live fleshed full, intricate, and in detail.
God empties himself into the earth like a cloud. God takes the substance, contours of a man, and keeps them, dying, rising, walking, and still walking wherever there is motion. At night in the ocean the sponges are secretly building; by day in a pharmacy drawer capsules stir in their jars. Once, on the Musselshell, I regenerated an arm! Shake hands. When I stand the blood runs up. On what bright wind did god walk down? Swaying under the snow, reeling minutely, revels the star-moss, pleased.
And to all you children out there with Easter bunnies I would like to say this: If they are chocolate, eat them. If they are living, tuck them in your shirt. There's always unseasonable weather. Hose down the hutches. For a special treat to brighten up their winter offer the early shoots of the wild American orchid, the lady's-tresses, in either of three varieties: the slender, the hooded, or the nodding. I Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever. -John Muir The Man Who Wishes to Feed on Mahogany
Chesterton tells us that if someone wished to feed exclusively on mahogany, poetry would not be able to express this. Instead, if a man happens to love and not be lowed in return, or if he mourns the absence or loss of someone, then poetry is able to express these feelings precisely because they are commonplace. -Borges, interview in Encounter, April, 1969 Not the man who wishes to feed on mahogany and who happens to love and not be loved in return; not mourning in autumn the absence or loss of someone, remembering how, in a yellow dress, she leaned light-shouldered, lanky, over a platter of pears- no; no tricks. Just the man and his wish, alone. That there should be mahogany, real, in the world, instead of no mahogany, rings in his mind like a gong-that in humid Haitian forests are trees, hard trees, not holes in air, not nothing, no Haiti, no zone for trees nor time for wood to grow: reality rounds his mind like rings in a tree. Love is the factor, love is the type, and the poem. Is love a trick, to make him commonplace? He wishes, cool in his windy rooms. He thinks: of all earth's shapes, her coils, rays and nets, mahogany I love, this sunburnt red, this close-grained, scented slab, my fellow creature. He knows he can't feed on the wood he loves, and he won't. But desire walks on lean legs down halls of his sleep, desire to drink and sup at mahogany's mass. His wishes weight his belly. Love holds him here, love nails him to the world, this windy wood, as to a cross. Oh, this lanky, sunburnt cross! Is he sympathetic? Do you care? And you, sir: perhaps you wish to feed on your bright-eyed daughter, on your baseball glove, on your outboard motor's pattern in the water. Some love weights your walking in the world; some love molds you heavier than air. Look at the world, where vegetation spreads and peoples air with weights of green desire. Crosses grow as trees and grasses everywhere, writing in wood and leaf and flower and spore, marking the map, "Some man loved here; and one loved something here; and here; and here."
Tying His Tie and Whistling a Tune, Zimmer Strikes a Nostalgic Note and Invents His Past The room where ladies move their bosoms to the bath; the room of doors, a wall of closets like a train, the footstool on the floor where Mother fell; the room where you burn yourself; the beer-making room; the room of wool. The room of finches- if you knock, they fly.
I remember the room of the poet, with bold roll moldings in the beams, with an antique clock tricked out in silk and twin glass doors to the park. Some Questions and Answers about Natural History Some Questions with Answers Question: What do fish do when floods come over- kiss onto a tree root and squeeze? Answer: There are no fish in our rivers and streams. The fauna you see were bank and basement dwellers. Fresh-water fish all live in the ocean; salt-water fish fall as rain. Question: What causes the wind? Why do I feel some way in wind? Answer: Trees fan the wind as they sway. Bushes help. Your heart fills up. Question: What color are fish? Answer: No one has ever seen fish. Fish secrete highly reflective compounds that act as a skin of mirror. It is thought that fishes' sides are pain ted in landscapes, mountainous. Question: Clouds? Answer: Mare's-tails, nocti-luminescent, camel-signs of storm, fresh air,
Excerpted from TICKETS FOR A PRAYER WHEEL by ANNIE DILLARD Copyright © 1974 by Annie Dillard
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.