By LAURA MAHER
When people speak of my city’s river, they say: declined. What they mean is: dry. Only modern cities can survive on the promise of water. Early people settled just east of the river, on the then-fertile floodplain that offered easy access to water, mud, fish, grasses, all the necessary components to forge a life in the desert. In the summer, I imagine cool breezes.
Tucson lies in a valley between four mountain ranges, so each range becomes a landmark. A trained eye can decipher a way through the desert using these mountains alone, though this eye will also see the lines of cottonwood trees, will find where water runs silently underground—the Santa Cruz River (translation: “Holy Cross”) long buried under a bed of pummeled stone, sand, bits of mica.
In this valley, a trained ear can distinguish predator calls: a wolf from a coyote, for instance.
The news is a gray wolf has been spotted at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the first found in Arizona in seventy years. She is alone, but scientists are hoping she is pregnant. What they can be sure of is that it seems miraculous, this appearance of her after so long. It is long work to replace what was erased once before.
Miraculous: marvelous, wondrous. Appearing in the mid-fifteenth century at the same moment as many of the Latinate words in Catholic doctrine, including immaculate: free of pollution.
A Catholic school education taught me first to treat my body as a sacred temple, something made in His image—second, that my body was a vessel, my fertility a promise I should keep.
What I have known all my life: the mountains’ shape in the sky.
* * *
What I have also known: the power of a story is held in who believes it.
Farming in the desert is as much a negotiation of water and weather as it is anywhere else, but the margins of error are smaller here. Irrigation ditches mark what is fertile and what is not. My father, buying and selling water.
You put something in the earth and hope for a return.
My father is a man for whom stories are social currency and a soul’s nourishment. This is something we share: a desire to place oneself in time and action, an opportunity to affirm a keen observation, our sense of humor, maybe; we share all this, and also a desire to be understood.
My friend tells me the story of the wolf over an early autumn campfire. The story makes him feel justified in his cause, wildlife conservation in the West. In her presence, he finds something to point to, to say: we’re right, we’re winning, it has all been worth it—this one lonely wolf.
(Of course, I’m putting my own loneliness on that wolf.)
If she is pregnant, it means she’ll have traveled five hundred miles to find the nearest wolf for mating. Somewhere in Wyoming, or Montana, there’s another gray wolf, howling.
You put something in the earth and you wait for a return.
My father can wait. He can be patient—isn’t he always? Waiting and hoping, ready to tell a story? My father, married to the truth of a story before it’s left his mouth.
“Let us be gentle when we question our fathers.”
—Anne Carson, “Thirst: Introduction to Kinds of Water,” Plainwater: Essays and Poetry
My father has found cows, horses, even human bodies in the ditches; the police department and fire department in a rural desert town are used to pulling parts from the mud.
Immaculate: spotlessly clean or pure. Bathed in white light. My father’s stories like standing in the light.
What I have known all my life: the earth coming off my father’s boots was always red.
* * *
The Santa Cruz River flowed consistently until the late 1800s but stopped due to “a combination of human error and natural disasters.”
—“Desert Farming (2000 B.C. to Present),” Feasibility Study for the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area, Center for Desert Archaeology, April 2005
In Catholic ritual, some water is holy, sacred, blessed by the priest (a human understudy for God). Twice in a life, you’ll be anointed with water in sacrament: baptism and the anointing of the sick, more commonly called last rites.
You put something in the earth and hope for a return; some years it works, and some years it doesn’t.
“Venturing wolves often meet their demise through hunting, car strikes, or other human interactions.”
—Taylor Hill, “The Grand Canyon Wolf is Dead,” TakePart.com, February 12, 2015
Scientists had named her Echo.
Each hospital visit, my father is visited by kind Catholic volunteers who want to offer him communion, another sacrament. My father has written his religious affiliation on the intake forms as “Catholic” once again.
Not an echo, but a call-and-response prayer.
The doctor calls it an internal bleed of unknown origin. The treatment—not a cure—is transfusion. My father is still good-spirited. I still worry, which is as close to praying as I can get.
You put something in the earth.
My friend who cannot have children prefers the term barren to infertile. Her period gone by twenty-eight, mysteriously. (We’d say “miraculously” if it was something she wanted. As miraculous as a gray wolf appearing at the Grand Canyon.) Either way, fertile or barren, she is a wheat field. My period returns after twenty-eight days, on time, like a ringing bell.
Not an echo, but a bell.
There’s acupuncture, IVF, massage, dietary changes—my friend, instead, learns to play the guitar.
Echo was never pregnant. The trained hunter had confused her for a coyote.
* * *
In my childhood, my father’s Catholicism was his story about the painting of Saint Lucia at the entrance to his parochial school. A woman in halo, gold and red robes, eyes gouged out and presented before her on a plate. She terrorized his dreams. Later, as an adult, he found a commemorative Saint Lucia plate and hung it on a wall in his home, a conversation piece for visitors, a reminder of where he’d journeyed.
Lucia: Latin roots, lucere, meaning “to shine”; lux, meaning “light.” Saint Lucia, the patron saint of the blind.
A closed door, but light getting in through the jamb.
My other friend, the one who has miscarried three times, lets her mind grow these children. Though she “has enough sense not to talk about them in polite conversation,” she counts the days she bled in one mental ledger, the days they grew in the other ledger. The lives they may have cast. The accounting, so far, is off. She waits for regular bleeding, to begin again.
Not an echo, but a howl.
There are mothers and there are saints. (Of course, I’m putting my own loneliness on these women. My own understanding of my purpose, my body, its limits and possibilities. The training I received.)
During these hospital visits, my father refuses communion by saying, “Not today, thanks,” as if tomorrow is his usual day. I doubt he’s received the host in a decade, maybe more. Instead, each time, he strikes up a conversation about farming. How he can turn the thread of conversation toward his work is impressive, and everyone has a story about the farmers they once knew. Everyone enjoys talking about the past, like participating in a sacred rite. What’s important here is that the volunteer will leave the room feeling the good work has been done, though the body and blood of Christ remain securely in his fanny pack.
* * *
The Catholic Church confirmed the Immaculate Conception as doctrine in 1854. This moment marks The Blessed Virgin Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother. Though Mary was conceived by normal biological means, God’s intervention upon her soul kept her free from the stain of original sin. (Mary’s role laid out like a map before her birth.)
All across the desert Southwest, you can buy a little Virgin keychain, pin, patch—associate with, stand near to her immaculacy.
Borders carved by rivers, as opposed to those carved by rulers, make little sense to the eye when looking at a map. But when standing in it—at the lip of the border, at the mouth of the river—the world is written in perfect blues, greens, browns, reds.
I see rivers as a metaphor of movement, of divine intervention, of being purified: to be cleaned, to traverse into the unknown. Dipped in a river, one becomes invulnerable.
My friend who cannot get pregnant, though she has tried for a year, says she will try for one more year, and then she will need to figure out something else to mother.
Though I am not a mother, I like the verb to mother for its implied unending mothering. There is also transformation, before and after, like what a believer seeks from a sacrament. To father, a beginning. Made in His image.
* * *
Seeking a cure for her mother’s unexplainable bleeding disorder, Saint Lucia walked fifty miles from her home to the pilgrimage site of Catania. In a dream, Lucia was promised that her mother would be cured because of Lucia’s great faith and purity. (Saint Lucia, like many female martyrs, had consecrated her virginity to God.)
Echo was never pregnant, but in her two years tracked with her radio collar, she walked one thousand miles.
“Pilgrims were people who figured things out as they walked. On the road you can think forward, you can think back, you can make a list to remember to tell those at home.”
—Anne Carson, “Kinds of Water: An Essay on the Road to Compostela,” Plainwater
My father, walking the rows, red dust blooming at each step.
Another lesson of a Catholic school education: the faithful must walk alone to know the true depth of their calling.
In the comments section of the article, there are people calling for the hunter to be shot. An eye for an eye. Is all life equal? All sacred? Saint Lucia and her eyes staring out at you from a plate.
Even a trained eye cannot always see what is before it, will confuse one image for another more recognizable one. Literally, an eye will trick a mind to believe what it can understand. Though a gray wolf is double the size and lacking the telltale red-brown haunch fur of the coyote, the hunter put the animal in his sight. His scope.
“Relying on Your Goodness, O God, we humbly ask you, through the intercession of Saint Lucia, Virgin and Martyr, to give perfect vision to our eyes…”
—The Prayer of Saint Lucia
The remaining photographs of Echo are pixelated but clear. That blue tint to digital images. Her collar. Though she was tracked for two years, scientists have yet to find her den.
Childlessness and the desire for a child, each an animal I’ve had to protect, to shelter. Women, in polite conversation, ask: Do you want children?
Plant. And return. Learn what is sacred in all processes. For some women, each month, blood is both a reassurance and a surprise. For some, each passes without. Like the rivers of modern deserts, dried up years ago, without any real awareness of what was being lost.
What I have lost during this part of my adult life: any fear or awe at witnessing blood come from my own body.
Though on maps, every river is painted in blue, in the desert, you’ll find either a river run brown with dirt or a river completely dry.
This hospital visit, my father’s face, depending on the light, glowed white or yellow, more pale than usual, like an old bruise. With half his blood supply replaced—four pints over twelve hours—his skin flushed pink in patches, the color returning as water irrigating the fields: each row filling with water, then spilling into the next.
Light: radiant energy. In Old English, a source of joy or delight, meaning “to be the light of someone’s eyes.” Related: apple of one’s eye: Old English, a symbol of what is most cherished. (See also, twentieth century: Stevie Wonder, 1972, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a daughter to a father.)
Related: figuratively, to stand in someone’s light: fourteenth century, to understand (but by nineteenth century, to obscure someone’s view). Related: to see the light: to come into the world, to believe.
What I’ve come to know: the sunlight’s reflection on water is the brightest light.
* * *
Is a river the boundary, or is a river the way through the boundary?
The news is that the reintroduction of nearly extinct gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park began a wave of ecological improvements.
“The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. … The rivers changed in response to the wolves, and the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often, so that the rivers became more fixed in their course.”
—George Monbiot, “For More Wonder, Rewild the World,” TEDGlobal, July 2013
Plant something in the earth. Tend to it. Return.
What I have learned: my father’s stories as well as my own. To see his face within mine. How the light from the hallway can ring a hospital room like a halo.
Immaculate: spotlessly clean, free of any blemish (from the Old French, blemiss—“to turn pale”). Water-blue robes for Mary, “The Queen of Heaven.” See also: the waters of Genesis 1, the beginning of creation.
Fertile or barren, lying on her side, a woman’s shape is the skyline, the curved edges of a riverbed.
I only speak of my city’s river when it carries water, those last few weeks of summer when it is a brown line snaking its way through town, attracting every desert creature for miles. When the monsoon brings sudden, spectacular rains, even the city’s roadways turn to rivers. In the morning, under the eye of a full sun, an accounting: mud, primarily; small rocks, some sticks, inexplicable twine, concrete blocks, and chunks of broken asphalt—these lying together in a pile, collecting as like-things do. What looks like an animal’s pelt, a car’s taillight. All but the water, which is already dried up, or otherwise gone.
Late summer, driving away from the hospital, I see a solitary coyote saunter across a city street and then turn down an alley as if she was never there.
Not an echo, but the rush of water just at the river’s edge.
Laura Maher is the author of the chapbook Sleep Water. Her poetry has appeared in Crazyhorse, Moonsick Magazine, The Collagist, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona. Visit www.lauramaher.com.