The ash sift settling on our cars and lawn
furniture, the towering gray cumulus clouds, the smoke
everywhere searing our eyes, throats, burning lungs, choking
the shrouded streets, the way the cremated
fumes seeped through the front door’s
leaky seal, the thick sooty fog piled
under the street lights,
the sun a small burnt orange
throbbing coal we left, drove our minivan like we could
leave it all, the Dixie, the Caldor, the River Complex
the Monument, cloud of witnesses
great cloud of awful presence, following
the American to the Sacramento to the Delta
1-80 all the way to the wide hips of the bay
and the sea-scrubbed, poured-out sky
till we sunk in sand and clean sweet air —
moist, alive as living and our lungs
soothed beasts. It was like breathing
kindness. I opened the van door and gave it
to my children, the whistling air, flashing
plovers, dolphins arcing their shining black backs.
My boys chased the waves’ slap and slip found a sand dollar
trove—sea urchin’s thin skeletons—
they grabbed at them in the spume at their sun-browned feet, stacked
them in gritty piles to cart home, pelicans drilled
into the waves, a sea lion’s face popped up, unblinking eyes
black coins interrogating me and I knew
it was all still true.
That week The Times promised every summer hotter at least
till the boys are my age.
In fourth grade in Iowa, Holly Godwin brought sand dollars
from her summer trip west, first we in Dexfield Elementary had ever seen.
Porcelain wafers in her blue-tinged hands.
She said they had a cross in the middle and I always thought
they had a cross in the middle but now
I see it’s a flower. Petaloid according to Britannica,
each pricked aperture the sign
of one tubed foot for breathing.
Whether/how they breathed was not a thought
we had then. The hole at the center
of the flower, their tiny mouth. Holly shook it to hear
its rattle and showed one broken in half,
the jagged chambers spilled bits
she called doves, as if in multiples the Spirit
rested in her cross-hatched palm, crying
again listen to my beloved.
Holly also passed around an orange pill
bottle filled with gray ash grit
from Mount Saint Helens, boring except
the way she whispered
that strange calamitous name.
My boys gathered and piled the sand
dollars for an hour. They’d never
found so many–echinoderms
stripped of everything but
their last stony shape. We’d never find
them like that again, even if
we went back to the same beach
to the same spot the next day,
which we did, searching
in all the shimmering
tide, that moving border, that
air that air that air.
Jenny Hykes Jiang’s poetry has appeared in literary journals including Little Patuxent Review, Arts & Letters, Caesura, Chestnut Review, Palette Poetry, and Madison Review. Raised in rural Iowa, she has taught English as a Second Language in Asia and the U.S.A. Currently she lives with her husband and three sons in the Sacramento area.
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