Yerba by Kay Merkel Boruf
After years of dreams in the forest
Now on the river’s edge laughing
Laughing a new laugh
“Stephen, can we get married?” I traced the hands on my Claddagh ring, the gold scratched and dented, the hands holding the tiny diamond and emerald heart facing in, the pale thin line on my right finger hidden underneath the band.
“Because I found a Mary MacFadden on sale.” My description spins out like a tightly wound top, my hands hold the imaginary string. “It’s red and sexy. It’s Sushan silk and has thousands of tiny little pleats. The dress has a high mandarin collar and long narrow sleeves like my Vietnamese ao dai, and the skirt is tight and split on both sides to the waist, and the pants are red slipper satin like my turquoise Gianfranco Ferre slacks, and the dress is covered in gold bugle bead designs of dragons and chrysanthemums and Chinese characters, and the coat has yards and yards of red organdy fagoted into millions of soft pleats, and the sleeves are full and reach to the floor.” I don’t pause too long, or I can’t say the words. Everything will fail, the spinning will stop. “Like a wedding kimono.”
“I could borrow Lu Shi’s gold hat.”
“I called Gayle and Joel. They can both come.”
“Why did you change your mind?”
“Because. You know why. Because I love your slanty eyes and your thin body, because you’re six years older than I am, because I just made up my fucking mind. Because.”
“Clear your calendar and call Father Drake. Can you wait for Lu Shi to come home? Her concert tour ends Tuesday. Give her a few days to get rid of her jet lag. Please, Bonny. You owe that to a former student. Your future stepdaughter.”
“Okay. I won’t be a complete bitch.”
“Call Father Drake and see when he’s free.”
Stephen Chien heard my story on our first date. He hears it often. He’s patient and knows I have to keep telling it to get it right. I was sexually abused by my brother. I had a nervous breakdown. I lived in a war zone. My husband was killed flying for the CIA. Stephen hears about the flag-draped casket. He hears about the bumblebees on the mounds of flowers. He hears about the three-hour old infant I brought home from my uncle’s hospital. He hears my second husband left me the same day. He hears my daughter’s birth mother took her back seven days later. He hears I helped my best friend plan her death. He knows she was a good mother. He knows she was a Christian. He knows I believe there are no accidents. He lets be believe my Buddhist teachings. He lets me love him. He lets me tell him my story.
“I’ve already called Father Drake. We can be married on my birthday.”
“I love you,” he laughed, “even though you drive me crazy.”
“I love you too, Saint Chien.”
I hang up the phone and panic that I’ve made a mistake. I wad up another piece of gum, toss it into the trash beside the Evian bottle, then turn the hands of my Claddagh ring to face out. The last chord of the clarinet concerto ends. The computer beeps, telling me it’s ready for me to type my favorite Tao passage.
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
He is people’s greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
My best friend’s death makes my own desire and fear of dying immediate. Her death metastasizes my fear of failure. She made no mistakes. Everything was perfect.
I can see her. Perfect motions refracted in the gilded mirror.
Her hair is damp and sticks to her head under the plastic bag. Unpaid bills and a picture of two adopted children are on the desk. The children are copies of their mother. Huge, dark eyes. Olive skin. Full faces. The daughter’s smile on her full lips spreads to her eyes, giving the impression of optimism. In contrast, the son’s pained expression defies any observer to catch him smiling. I’m sorry, she scribbles. Her pen lurches. An empty pill container falls onto the Persian rug beside her bed. The daughter’s calculus teacher calls to say his student is failing. The message he leaves asks if there’s some problem. How can he help? The son’s Commanding Officer calls to say her son flew to New York to see his girl friend without permission. The son’s unopened valentine lies beside more empty pill containers on the desk. Beneath the card is a list of numbers. The roofer. The Mercedes dealership. The grandmother’s psychiatrist. The insurance agent at Methodist Hospital in Houston.
I can see her baptism.
“Are you nervous? Won’t your mother’s friends at temple hate you?”
“No,” she tells me. “They hate me anyway. I’m panicked Father Drake will pour water over my face, and I’ll scream, ‘Shit’ in front of the whole parish.”
She never understands why I don’t forget and swear in the classroom. Discipline and a schizophrenic love for masochism. In the daytime, I teach brain-damaged students with high hormonal levels. At night, I scream obscenities at the mirror and leave perverted messages on my best friend’s answering machine.
She does not fail. Her kidneys fail. Her successful children’s lives unravel. Her home and her new car self-destruct. She is, however, successful in her suicide. She remembers the admonition—Don’t fuck it up.
This time, however, I fail. My obsessive, compulsive behavior normally leaves little room for error. My Day-Timer has notations on each line. Papers are marked and returned the next day. New clothes are purchased at seventy-five percent sales. The BMW is serviced as suggested in the owner’s manual. Boxes of panty hose are ordered twice annually from Neiman’s. Flowers are ordered for my husband’s grave each Memorial Day. My life, everything, is orderly. R.C. Gorman’s nude form the Lawrence celebration in Taos is framed over a grey filing cabinet. Beside the Gorman is a framed letter from Christa McAuliffe and a Buddhist prayer scroll. Across from the prayer scroll is a photograph of Madeleine L’Engle and me. We are standing in the Great Hall at the girls’ school where I teach. The huge woman dwarfs my small frame. Not captured by the photographer is my reticent voice. I want to write about living in Viêt-Nam. Do it, she says. Don’t talk about it. Remember, no one really wants to hear your story.
On top of the smoked glass and stainless steel desk, a broken vase from Chang Mai, Thailand, holds green pens and calligraphy points. Through the dark glass I see stacks of manuscripts littering the grey carpet. Jeffrey’s bracelet hangs on my wrist. It’s an albatross that connects me to the lurch of his H34. On good days, it’s a miter to his razor’s edge existence, an Antichrist to my damned daily breathing. The bracelet’s raised ugly Roman serifed letters and periods spell out Jeffrey’s initials and our last name. Tasteless 250 grams of solid gold, hand-crafted by Air America’s jewelers in Laos, purchased with “greeny” missions money. He wore the bracelet only three months. Lynn’s bracelet lies on top of the dark glass. She wore the pale gold Florentine bracelet on her thin wrist every day for the last twenty-three years. Until her suicide. The bracelet’s anchor is sheets of manuscript, sheaves of sanity—text of phrases from Finnegans Wake and Ulysses—text copied in Gothic Spirito:
Alone a last a long
the Riverrun past Eve
from swerve of shore by a commodius vicus
to Howth Castle and Environs
Stately stairhead yellow dressinggown
to say yes
my mountain flower
Through the window I watch a one-legged sparrow jump on the fence around the pool. Its throat moves with inaudible sounds.
At the Okura, surrounded with anthuriums, birds of paradise, purple orchids, and nosegays of violets, I sat encircled on the bed with dozens of peignoirs in pale yellows, and greens, silk blouses in blues and beiges, soft grey pouches filled with purses and shoes. The room was suffocating with sanguine odor.
“I can’t go back to Viêt-Nam,” I said. I turned my back to Stephen. I didn’t want him to see me cry. I refolded a turquoise silk blouse and placed tissue paper between each fold.
“I thought you wanted to look for your Chi Hai and see the Emerald Buddha again,” Stephen said.
“Chi Hai and Cùc are probably dead. It’d be like going to the Viêt-Nam Memorial in Washington, leaving a poem at the Wall where Jeff’s name should be. When my students ask why he was killed, I parrot the same inane lie—he died for freedom, for the flag.” I choked back my tears and continued. “For his goddamned thrillseaking pleasure.”
The vein in Stephen’s forehead pulsed. His eyes remained expressionless.
“We could go to Singapore,” he said.
“I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.”
Stephen came and sat beside me on the bed. His slender fingers stroked my forehead. I could feel the tension released from between my eyes.
“The Chinese word for crisis has two characters—danger and opportunity.” He traced the two characters on the inside of my palm, the square with a gash across it and the cross with two bars. His fingers were never cool like mine, but warm, soft, smelling of musk. “In my country, the wife burns on the altar with her dead husband. When Yi Lin was killed, I thought I could not live without her. I wanted to lie with her in the grave. The priest said we should be thankful she is with God, but my heart was frozen. I wanted to put my daughter in a boarding school. I couldn’t suffer the pain . . . seeing her mother’s eyes . . . but your tenderness willed me to live and think of Lu Shi.”
I pulled away from him.
“You told me a tree with two roots grows strong. That’s bullshit. I don’t even know who I am. I thought if I went back to Southeast Asia, I could let go of Jeff, like the sherpa in The Snow Leopard, perform a chod—be free of his death—sleep on his remains.”
“Bonny, just tell me what to do.”
I see the confusion in Stephen’s eyes. He is not so American as he thinks he is. “I don’t know. Maybe I can’t allow myself any pleasure. Maybe I’ve been sad too long. Maybe I can’t be married.” I couldn’t believe I thought those words, much less said them to the man I married three days ago.
“Why don’t we meet Lu Shi in Rome? She wanted us to go back with her, but she didn’t want to intrude on our honeymoon. Let me choose where we go. Let me surprise you.”
Stephen didn’t surprise me. I knew he would take me to Coventry and West Berlin. For years, he’d read about the two buildings constructed adjacent to churches burned in World War II.
I hated Coventry. Our guide rambled on about the English architect placing the new edifice contrary to adopted church doctrine in order to face the original mediaeval church. All that remained on the eleventh century edifice were walls. Survivors of the blitz had fashioned a crude wooden cross with iron and nails melted by the force of a bomb. The grey stained-glass window of the new building jettied fifty meters into an overcast sky. The angels etched in the glass were demons with broken wings and faces and no mouths. They floated in purgatory. I wanted to tell Stephen, There I am. Up there. The small angel with broken wings and frozen screams. How could I have made such a mistake marrying this man and thinking I could finally bury Jeffrey?
I was sure the German church would be an equal failure. The mass of people on the Kurfurstendamn tried to separate Stephen and me. I matched his long strides and clutched his arm.
“Let’s go back to Ka-De-We,” I said to him.
“The church is going to close.”
“I want to exchange my fur for the blond Loewe.”
“You look better in the black.”
“I think Lu Shi would like the other Hundterwasser better.”
“She’ll love Spectacles in the Small Face.”
We reached the cordoned area of the nineteen century narthex. I read the sign over the entrance to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Cathedral. Temporarily closed. The steeple, like a lost savoir, stood without a building.
“This room is disgusting, Stephen. Look at the gold. It’s peeling off the frescoes. The ceiling is burned. I can’t deal with this. It reminds me of Têt. The buildings.” The blood.
I started back toward the Kurfurstendamn. Stephen grabbed my arm. His other hand held my wrist.
“Please look at the new cathedral. You loved Coventry.”
“I hated it.”
“You loved it. You said it stood defying the war gods.”
I refused to go into another war zone. I had refused to go to Viêt-Nam with Jeff and live in a city where men wore jungle fatigues and shot real bullets from plastic Mattel toys, where personnel carriers guarded boulevards. He talked me into living in Sai-Gon. He made me love my Chi Hai and the dirt and the cockroaches and the rain. He made me love war. He made me love him. And then he left me.
I clinched my teeth and stared at Stephen’s eyes. I knew my directness offended him.
“We have to see the church now. You know the Embassy won’t grant me an extension on my visa,” he said.
“Please,” I said.
His eyes were tired with dark circles. His delicate features, high cheek bones, a perfectly shaped nose, made me think of a displaced Greek god.
“Please,” he said.
He released me arm.
“Let’s go,” I said.
He purchased two tickets and picked up two pamphlets. He led me into the vestibule. I opened the pamphlet.
They will teach us that Eternity is the standing still of the present.
—Jorge Luis Borges
In 1962 Egon Eierman erected a modern church which Berliners call “the powder puff.” The church stands beside the remains of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Cathedral.
My life during the 60’s had nothing I common with this German’s. My life was football games, piano recitals, proms, John Lennon, Jack Kennedy.
Eierman’s church of blue vision, a glass mosaic octagon, an island of modern art,spits at war and death.
I tugged on Stephen’s belt loops and pointed at the phrases “spits at war and death.”
Eierman used couplets of glass to shut out the noise on the Kurfurstendamn.
We sat down, alone, in the church. The top of the sanctuary reached sixty meters above our heads.
“I hate it,” I said. “It’s like a giant navy tomb. An octagon sarcophagus.” A shroud.
It was 5 o’clock. I knew the congested traffic was filling the four lanes around the triangular island.
Inside, it was silent and dark. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. Shades of navy changed to shades of blue. Blue the shade of cornflowers outside the casita in Taos. Blue the shade of Texas skies. Blue the shade of the feathers of a chaid bird. Blue the shade of Jeff’s eyes. The blue grids changed to Pompeian reds. The reds changed to Mondrian yellows. The church was an inflorescent kaleidoscope of primary colors, a German kiva.
Behind us, an organist began Handel’s Messiah. The air currents caused by the vaulted ceiling carried strains of the song in an eerie tunneling effect.
“That’s the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’” I said. He knew it was placed at Jeff’s funeral.
“I know,” he said.
I looked straight ahead. I didn’t look at the casket or the flag. I knelt and followed the melody of the Messiah. The minister refused to let the congregation stand. I stood, faced the minister, and smiled. I wanted to scream, How could you let Jeff die and make me live? How could you let Lynn die?
Tears ran down my cheeks. Stephen put his arm around me and cradled my face into his shoulder. His shirt was cool and smelled sweet. I wanted to stay here. Safe. And not return to the people outside.
I looked at the front of the sanctuary. A bronze Christ figure twelve meters high hung above the altar. The attenuated figure’s outstretched hands reached toward the communion table.
“What’s wrong with the crucifix?”
“There’s no cross, Bonny.”
“Now it makes sense—the title in the brochure—“The Risen Christ.”
We both stared at the figure.
“Did you see it move?” I said.
“The Christ. He moves.”
He stared at the figure for several seconds, studying the movement.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
I’m not sure I can let Jeff go, but I have no choice.
My best friend is dead.
I am Yerba.
I fold my hands in my lap, palms up.
I am laughing a new laugh.
13.5 The Game
Girls sit in a circle, learning each other
Like words to be spoken in lonely places.
—Naimi Shihab Nye
I laid the coat in the trunk, folding white tissue around the yards and yards of red organdy fagoted into million of soft pleats. The floor-length sleeves rested on top of the tissue, then Lu Shi’s gold hat on top of the sleeves. I shut the trunk but left it unlocked. I laid the red Sushan silk ao dai down in the back seat. The narrow skirt, slit at both sides to the waist, the fitted bodice were heavy with gold bugle beads. I straightened the front and back panels of the skirt and fastened a loose snap where the bodice closed asymmetrically across the bust. The beaded designs of dragons and chrysanthemums and Chinese characters fanned out on the leather seats. The quilted black velvet flats were in a shopping bag with the purse and the six pence, the lingerie and the makeup, and the bottle of Joy. The pants—were in the house. I ran back to get the red satin pants. At last, I clicked the garage door opener and started the ignition. Notes of an oboe concerto from the CD player filled the car. I looked at my Day-Timer, determined not to return to the house. Everything was perfect.
The entrance to the Tollway was void of traffic. I moved into the left lane and set the cruise control on seventy-five. I was dressed in Stephen’s favorite turquoise shirt, his purple sweats, my old mules, his cashmere socks, and my good luck Waterford cross. Stephen’s laughing almond eyes watched me earlier, raiding his closet. Thank god, my coat covered the outrageous outfit. I prayed not to have a wreck. I looked in the mirror. I had never been out of the house without makeup even though my complexion was my mother’s, flawless and pale. When I arrived, I was sure I could duplicate Milo’s new look, flat and nude.
I glanced at the gasoline gauge. Three-quarters of a tank. Enough to drive to the hotel. Gayle and Joel were coming late to the hotel. I straightened the jewelry on both wrists, Jeff’s heavy ID bracelet and Aunt Thelma’s Chanel gold rope on my left wrist, and Lynn’s pale gold Florentine bracelet and Xavier’s serpentine chain, so delicate it had been repaired until it included few of the original gold links, on my right wrist.
I saw the Mockingbird exit ahead and was relieved I hadn’t missed the street. The burned remains of my professor’s house had been cleared. The new frame stood naked beside his pool. I sped through the toll booth and threw three dimes into the basket. The coins banged on the back of the metal basket and fell into the hole. The light changed from red to green.
I raced through the back lot and parked near the front of the building. The rain had stopped, and the sky cleared to a light rose. I draped the dress and the coat on one arm, the shopping bag over the other, and held the hat in my left hand. My worn mules flopped on my heels and splashed through the puddles on the sidewalk. Laden with packages, I thought of a Saturday when Lynn and I had gone shopping with our mothers. We drove into a filling station to get gas. The seats were filled with shopping bags of clothes to return, sacks of food in case we got hungry, and extra shoes for the afternoon when our feet hurt. The filling station attendant asked if we were traveling. Lynn and I laughed. Yes, we said, we were traveling around the city—shopping.
With my free hand, I opened the heavy wooden doors. My shoulder grazed the carved angels, jutting from the beveled panels. I was dying to see the flowers. The florist said pale anthuriums and birds of paradise were easy to arrange, but violets in winter were more difficult.
I entered the narthex, and the coat slipped off my arm onto the floor. Termagant lips mouthed the familiar words. Goddamnit. The coat lay in clouds of red organdy, circles of tucks and pleats, and sheaves of white tissue paper. I looked into the courtyard beside the sanctuary. Outside, the gnomon caught the sun’s shadow. The gold
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