Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

getting it out of my system

Near the edge of Fabyan is a place. There is Fabyan with its wild orderliness, it’s sculptures, grottos and garden and then there is this place.
For good or bad it was there. Founded in 1894 by a woman- an Illinois State School for Girls. Certain sorts of girls. Immoral girls and unruly ones. “The bad ‘uns.” Maybe.
Maybe not. Girls from all over the state were placed here. They worked as maids during the day or did hard labour and then were locked into tiny cells at night with bars on the windows. Locked into a room at night after doing back breaking work. Rooms wide as far as you can stretch out your arms. Cells for bad girls.
And so girls died there. Some were taken back to their original homes but some were not. They weren’t wanted. Maybe there was no money in the family to get them back or maybe they were simply a disgrace. Maybe there was no family. So these dead girls and some of the dead babies that these girls had were put on a small plot on the property. Some were marked, some weren’t. They weren’t deep graves but they were put away. Names and dates and nothing else. Telling a story. A story. The property sat still forever. In 1979, the old buildings were shut down and the property sat and sat. I drove past as a little girl and always looked quizzically at the rising hill it was on. It rose up over the Fox River with the road nestled between its slope and the River and I always wondered, “What is up there? It looks so abandoned.” And it was. Till a few years ago when someone bought the old school farm and turned it into a housing development for the wealthy.
The wealthy? They drive out of the entrance in SUVs. They drive out of a place that was surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire. A place that let you in and did not let you out. And at the bottom of all of this flashed a river, heading away.
The buildings are gone but the developer let the cemetery stay. Who knows? Maybe it is protected by some sort of oddball conservation effort. Conserving grief? Pain? Aloneness? Despair? Death?
Ahhhhhhhh, but the rich live all around it.
Even ivory towers cannot mask oppression in the soil.

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The Willows Converse Among Themselves

I look across the river and catch sight of the willows, lost in their own world. They have no regard for me. They are speaking to each other in whispers so I hear nothing clearly but I see their long golden-yellow chains wavering over the water. It reflects their light.

There are presences in this world that are not human but sometimes, a human being comes across one of these presences and this is when poetry happens—when we interact with the strange divinity that moves through the world.

I caught sight of the willows and so complete were they within themselves, so beautiful to behold, that my mind stopped dead in its tracks and my heart eased. In the presence of an Other, human commotion becomes impossibly silly and pointless. The past and future converge into the present and there is only now.

I exhale the stress I’ve held this morning as I watch them. The willows, their long hair hanging over their faces, disregard me totally and completely and talk in their slow tree way, something to do with the air, water, and earth. I cannot hear much but what I do hear makes me recall there were other beings on this earth other than myself, older than myself. They exist in this time, in many times, living, dying, always reappearing. The willows hang their hair over the water as they have done for centuries, listening to the currents and moving with the breezes and eddies of the wind.

With a gratefully diminished self, I thank the universe for the ancient poetry that is the willow tree and move forward, reborn, into the bright day.

 

茶の煙柳と共にそよぐ也

the tea smoke

and the willow

together trembling

Issa

(Trans. David G. Lanoue)

Beautiful Dirty Summer

The thick green groves of cup-plants (silphium perfoliatumare) stand eight feet tall and are in their late summer glory. I look up at their bright yellow ray flowers and shield my eyes, the bright flowers sway so high and run so close to the sun. When I squint, the flowers darken into forms without color like the outline of the sun beating through closed eyelids.

I take a step nearer and peer into the leaves. Tiny pools of still water collect where the thick cup leaves meet the stems. It has not rained in the last few weeks and I’m surprised there is any water here at all. For leaves that are not broken or rotted, thimblefuls of water weigh without movement, rimmed with the detritus of summer: a fly’s wing, a wad of spider web, bits of dead grass and portions of pollen.

These tiny pools are water for goldfinches, tiny birds that flash by like rays of light. It hasn’t rained for weeks and this is left, tiny pools of water full of dirty summer. I consider drinking it. With one quick gulp, I’d drink the essence of a passing summer, imbibe what August means, and taste the bitter part of the growing season. This is living but rotting part that underlines all our lives but that no one likes to see, much less taste.

I shift my weight from foot to foot. The sun beats heavily down. The yellow flowers tumble in overhead breezes and the goldfinches live nearby, finding water where they can as the dry weeks pass. My hands drop to my sides and I pass back through the grass, ready for the shade. Perhaps when it rains and all the cup plants are full, I’ll take my drink along with the many others.