There Are Things We Are Not Meant to See
Twelve of them stood lit in white, the rest in pale green, as if for a film set, all of them dressed in Old West clothes, the boys in starched shirts, each girl in a robe-length dress, and the old ones, too: men in wide black belts, their wives (shoes like black loaves, black bows in their hair). All the scene tinged in green, and they came down to the shore as if this was the day they’d lived for, been lit for, and the green ones went to the ones in white, took each by the hand, raised them up in Christ, they said, then hurled them in, and not one of the whites threw out his arms to swim, not one looked back as the swift flow took them, and one by one were gone.
And as they passed, what was white of them went more white, seemed somehow to singe the eyes of all the rest, who turned from them & climbed back to where they’d come from, up the bank, to a place we thanked our own God we could not see.
We lay in wait for night, then came out from the trees.
This land’s a hard land—
sand and shale, and some days the wind shears shale from the side of a bluff, which on its way down makes a dry sound as it rides its bed of dust. Plants do grow—sage, dwarf palms, rough-barked trees that bear tart fruit. What’s built here’s built of stone, slab by slab, the sand & lime in each joint made wet in rain so rare that those who work the stone run like madmen when rain comes, mix mud, slap it into joints all night if the rain rains on, & sometimes when day dawns you see that a start for a new home’s been made, stays that way ‘til the next rain, its walls to rise with the years; at last it’s roofed with shale, a wood-blaze made, wine brought in, a lamb pulled from its flock, its throat slit, the spit cranked while drinks are passed—feast, dance on the new stone floors, all the dry night damp with dance, bright eyes, bright words.
Rare. Most times not much moves here, and one might think, Ah, the still world, such peace, but there’s no peace—all too soon the blade of wind draws down the throat of each dry day/brute night, palms bent, fruit torn from trees, the air-horns of trains in the hills torn to shreds by wind.
Why do you stay here? I asked a man, and he stared, blank, his face: bleached cliff.
What is your name? he said to me, and I said my name.
Shale, he lied, all of us are named shale. It means the same as bell, and it rings.
Gerald Fleming’s poetry and prose poems have appeared widely over the past thirty-five years. Between 1995 and 2000 he edited and published the literary magazine Barnabe Mountain Review, whose archives can be found at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. His book of poems Swimmer Climbing onto Shore was published in 2005, a book of prose poems, Night of Pure Breathing, appeared in 2011 from Hanging Loose Press in New York, and a book of longer prose poems, The Choreographer, appeared in 2013. In 2013 he launched the limited-edition vitreous literary magazine One (More) Glass. Fleming taught in the San Francisco public schools for thirty-seven years, and has published three books for teachers, the most recent of which is Rain, Steam, and Speed (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). Most of the year he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.