Tuesday, January 13, 2009
by Joy Harjo
My father found himself in Boston once,
ten thousand myths away from Oklahoma. I think of him standing
on the rim of the Atlantic, the horizon vertical as it describes
the Upperworld and the Underworld. It was the water that attracted
him, as if he were some kin to the Watermonster, as if he'd heard
the stories and the monster was the only one who could approximate
the turmoil of knowledge.
And there was a woman involved. I imagine a woman as beautiful
as his first love, a woman whose picture I've kept in a suitcase
he used for short journeys. Her name was Margaret. My sister's
name is Margaret. My brother married a Margaret. My best friend
is Margaret. I wonder at the karma of naming. The story is
uncovered in me yet provides an urge to get
at this particular angel.
On New Year's Eve my love and I drove to the wharf in a cold
that forces one to understand the nature of cold in the East.
The quality of East is mist, approximates beginnings though
endings are particularly startling here. When the old ones
discuss the origin, one version includes the first Muskogee
rising from the mists in the East. I can imagine it, but not
in the restaurant the size of a small ship filled with
passengers who appear to have just arrived from England,
Ireland, and parts of Germany and France. I think of my father
in the bay loving ships. Not the sailing itself but the ability
to sail over the terrible deep.
The Watermonster is found all over the world. The myth of
Columbus includes illustrations of sea serpents crawling at
the shelf of the end of the world. The Watermonster still lives
in Oklahoma in lakes close to home and is known to appear
to those who have lost too much in the War of Everyday.
After the flood that turned Fort Gibson upside down, I saw
the Watermonster, my father not far behind me in our walk
to measure damage and defeat. The monster stroked calmly
in the afterburn of the storm that cost thousands in a culture
that measures loss in terms of money. I understood it in
the narrow gait of my father, whose losses I bore in cells
storing memory. Maybe I didn't see the Watermonster
but glimpsed a wayward angel as it dipped down and disappeared
in the aftermath of the flood. I gained a sense of the power
of the unknown locked in the unknown. The shifting image
triggered the origin story and I realized that at ten years old
I'd have to begin all over again as if I'd lost my place
in the book of myths. Perhaps the Watermonster died in shame
of being disbelieved. I know I bear the burden of explanation.
What would have driven my father from Oklahoma to Boston
except for the promise of a good job, or a woman? I asked him
more than once about Boston and why the leap from one universe
to the other. It remains a family mystery that no one knows
about except me, and even then all I have to go on are his lips
when I asked him that question and the flash in his eyes
of an unbearable light as if it were Margaret. I need to know
the story of Margaret in the world. When I was small I used to
look up the meaning of names in the dictionary.
Joy was always joy. My sister's name meant beloved gift.
A pearl. I don't think he ever got over the Margaret of his life.
Nor did he ever get over my mother, who still says
he's the only man she ever loved.
At nearly forty I am thinking of the traps we all construct
to absent memory. At low tide, pleasure boats tip precariously
toward the mud. The blue moon gets ready for the new year
as ships line up for war. I eat a plate of fried oysters,
my favorite gift from the deep, and think of my father
and his search for the pearl, for the beloved.
Some things remain mystery.
When he died in '83, he lived a few miles from the Gulf,
his trailer steadily eaten by a salty wind with a fierce appetite.
He paced back and forth in the sawing grass, impatient for me
to arrive from New Mexico before he left from his home
in Oyster Creek. The return to the Milky Way involves
a reenactment of the Muskogee creation story, as if you must
wind back through all memory, all history, the Watermonster
the ongoing companion to the left of you. That same look
in his eyes, then he was gone.
I couldn't recover him from the deep.
Copyright © Joy Harjo