Oracle Bones

Stretched out on the sofa, I watch the Cubs sink mid-inning— runners at the corners, pitcher ahead of the stiff-legged batter who lunges into his bunt; the umpire checks the scoreboard.

The mailman brings a circular from Visa for pocket and desk calendars in fake leather, gold-tone corners, stamped initials; magazines expensive to renew. Later I buy a plastic fountain pen from Walgreen's to answer your letter— two pages, single-spaced.

What do we remember of each other anyway? Ivy rings my bedroom window no matter how often I snap twigs, pull sticky nodes off brick. Bitter payoff of green berries lures flickers to the sill.

This much I can tell you: weekends I played cigarbox house with Betsy McCall paper dolls, saw Flash Gordon's squadron of Mixmasters chase Ming the Merciless through piano-wire outer space;

followed my brother around Burrville playground, looking for coins, Cracker Jacks prizes, whatever could survive the hot water baptism Mother threatened. From fruitcake tins with village scenes — men sporting top hats, women ice skating in ermine cloaks, long skirts like those she hemmed for rich ladies — we stole bobbins and spools to build cities near her treadle machine. She caught grasshoppers, fed them blades of grass to make them "spit tobacco."

Before shadows drizzled mulberry at the brow of Harmony Hill,

Father bragged that the heaviest thing he ever lifted was a pencil. His idea of cooking:

eggs brown-laced in a cast-iron skillet; two dozen crabs boiled in an aluminum pot, lid weighted with brick. After Mother scalded the turkey to swell its pores, we tweezed out pinfeathers.

There were few things that mattered. At five I knew sharks prowled the Anacostia, waited for girls who stayed in the tub while water swirled down the drain. Under white sand, Seagull Beach, boys buried jellyfish whose damp sting never died. I gathered shells I could not name, whose frail edges snagged my pockets; sat in the kitchen, traced around them on drawing paper with red crayon. Darwinian footprints ambled across the page.

O'Keeffe found stone clumps of mussels steeped in million-year-old blue.

Before she knew the sea, she heard its rush trapped in conch crowns, as blood pulsed its echo in her ears. Waves of grey sage swept Taos bluffs.

New Year's Day, a man as first visitor brought good luck. My neighbor's son made his rounds to single women who welcomed with a sandwich; widows, with scotch.

Mother doubted "stupidstitions," placed a filled shot glass on the dining room table, listened for his knock.

With no such guarantees, we should pierce tortoise shells with glowing iron like a Shang Dynasty scholar who ordered dragon's bones, medicine from an Anyang apothecary;

instead got oracle bones whose crack pointed "auspicious" or "inauspicious,"

which forecast when Earth believed in technicolor dreams: "Three flames ate the sun and big stars were seen." Total eclipse: coronal streamers, stars tore twice-told daytime sky.

It is enough that I begin in the middle of the page away from margins.

About stark shapes in "Black and White," O'Keeffe wrote: "This was a message to a friend —if he saw it he didn't know it was to him and wouldn't have known what it said. And neither do I." Fireflies mark our palms with pheromones; we glow in the dark.

In the Medici, I start to write to you between the lines. The bug-eyed man, again, sits before me so he can sketch my portrait on his napkin which he insists deserves a three-dollar frame from Woolworth's. His thick hands, rough like a farmer's, like my uncle's, only much less kind. Meanwhile the busboy sets afire rows of saffron candles.

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