Nonfiction by Phyllis Rogers
On Saying Goodbye to the Land
You are on your way to say goodbye to the land.
You can’t remember why selling the dirt out from under you had seemed like a good idea. But you don’t live on it anymore, haven’t for a long time.
All over La Veda pass there are deer. You feel their eyes on you as you pass. They line both sides of the road.
You are rushing because you want to make it to Orlando’s before they close at 3:00. You need a taste of their chile carribe, of the red chile earth, need to feel its smooth burn on your mouth and throat.
Outside of Questa you see the wild horses. You have never seen them before. They are crossing the road. They are small with thick hair and long tangled manes.
You pull into Orlando’s parking lot at 2:49. As you do, you get a text from your friend. It says the man who has been in prison for thirty years for raping and murdering his mother might be innocent. You see him leaving you that night, walking out into the cold night with its pale moon glow, leaving because she wasn’t answering her phone. You think of him going home to flashing lights and yellow tape all around his house. You see him how he was then, looking like a man, but still part boy.
When you leave Orlando’s, you pass the graveyard that sits in the blue shadow of Taos mountain. There is no grass, just dirt. There are crooked crosses, plastic flowers. Your family is buried there. You think of your own mother, see yourself standing beside the hearse in the snow. You are wearing a green corduroy jumper dress and white tights. You watch them lower the shiny casket into the ground.
You feel that familiar feeling, a pain that starts low in your chest and ends in your throat, the pain that shuts you up because nothing can be done. Nothing. Can. Be. Done.
And you remember it hurts the worst right at the base of your throat. That is where you can get enough strength, enough traction to keep the tears from coming out.
You drive through Taos, across the mesa that looks out at the gorge, through the horseshoe curve, past Pilar, and into the canyon to the land. You stop at the top of the driveway and look down at the orchard, the river, the black rocks that line the mesa, the old house, the falling down adobe walls.
You rattle down the rickety driveway with its rocks and ruts. When you get out of the car you walk to the goat pen. She has been dead for thirty-nine years, he for seven. It still smells like hay and manure. You remember why she got the goats. She needed milk: three girls in three years. The one in the middle was three days old when she died. Then there was you and she didn’t have anything to give you. She had given it all to the first two.
You see the baby that died inside of you. When she came out they put her in a small, steel pan. They showed her to you and asked if you wanted them to put her in a dress so you could hold her and say goodbye.
And you think if your mother had been there with you, standing by your side, she would have understood every little thing, even the smallest of emotions, as small as the prick of a pin.
You walk to the house and pull the door key from the porch rafter, open the cobwebbed screen door, slip the key in and turn the knob. The house has been empty for years. There are mouse droppings everywhere. The furniture has been gone for a while, but there are still broken pieces of the pottery that she made. You walk to the back to your old bedroom. The ceilings feel low and the floorboards creak.
The three of you were on your way to Santa Fe that day: you, your sister, and her. She didn’t want to go, but there were things she needed to do. You remember how the air felt. How it jerked and rattled the sagebrush and chamisa. How sand slapped the windshield like rain.
It was across from the Piggly Wiggly that you heard her gasp. A white car flew in front of you. When your car stopped spinning, your mouth tasted like metal. Things were still, her head leaning against the steering wheel. You couldn’t wake her. Your sister got out of the car, ran to the highway. The wind swatted at her hair and face as she cried and screamed and waved her arms.
When a sedan pulled over, two ladies got out with tight black curls. They opened the car door and pulled her out, wrapped her in blankets and, again and again, they asked each other if she was dead.
You rode with her in the ambulance. She just laid there. The EMT hugged and kissed you and told you it would be okay. He was young with brown golden skin and brown curly hair. His breath was hot on your face.
You leave the house and head down the back road. It’s the old road to Santa Fe and flanks the Rio Grande. The dirt is dry and rises and hovers around your feet. You think of riding your bikes down that road, think of riding along on his handlebars, of finding arrowheads. The sky was always bright back then. You were part of a family: you with long messy hair, a freckled nose, blue eyes squinting into the sun.
You walk and walk until you reach Big Rock. It’s the big black rock you always came to. It has cacti and grasses growing in its crevasses and it overlooks the Rio Grande. You look across the river, wonder if that story was true. How a circus train crashed on the train tracks on the mesa. How they were able to re-capture all of the animals but the monkeys. How the monkeys lived for a long time in the caves on the side of the mesa. How they might still be there.
You head back toward the house, head down to the river-bank, walk along the flood plain, where the cottonwoods are so old you feel surrounded by old men. You cut up through the orchard. You remember how wild asparagus grew around the base of fruit trees and all the snakes lived beneath the big cherry tree. You hover for a moment in the walnut grove.
The sun is starting to go down now. You walk up back to the house. In the back yard is a chaise, lying on its side. You pull it onto all fours, dust it off. You get a sleeping bag and pillow from the car.
That day, it was dark by the time you left the hospital. Just the three of you: you, your sister and your father. The night was quiet and the stars coated the sky. No one said a word. When you got home you went to sleep alone in your nine-year old body, in your little bed.
You cried at the funeral. You looked down on her in her open casket. She didn’t look like her. Her skin was grey and she wore makeup. Her hair was styled in a strange way.
Two weeks later you were a sugar-plum fairy in your school play.
You slide your body into the sleeping bag you’ve put on the chaise. You lay your head back on the pillow and smell the deep dirt that hovers in the air.
Soon the sky is black. You can see the big and little dippers. You can see the milky Milky Way.
The only time you dreamt of her, she came home. She walked right in the door. You felt relief and joy. But she was busy, busy and in a rush. She didn’t have time for you. She didn’t know she had been away, didn’t know she was dead.
And you felt the pain that starts low in your chest and you stop in your throat.
In the morning, you wake in your sleeping bag. It has rained. You have lived other places and the rain on the earth has never smelled the same. It is the smell that lingers beneath your skin, coats the inside of your veins.
You get up and walk to your car, put your sleeping bag and pillow away. You go inside the house and walk around. There is a cardboard box in the corner. You take it and place the broken pottery in a box. Outside you grab a shovel that leans against the house. You bury her pottery beneath the lilac bush. Its roots smell like its blooms. You head up the rocky driveway and go north. You think you’ll stop for chile at Orlando’s, but you forgot it is Sunday and they are closed.
Right after Questa, you stop the car, get out and look for the wild horses. You don’t see them, but you can feel they are around. You think you might hear their hooves. There is an echo as they hit the red clay ground.
Phyllis Rogers is a lawyer and mother living in Colorado. She's at work on her first novel, also set in her homelands of New Mexico.