KAREN EMBRY

Where I Live

And her cold cracked feet become my cold cracked feet. At night, it is hard to hide them. Underneath covers trying to forget where you have been. Trying not to think inside dirt roads and small creeks. If this bed were not so much a chicken coop, a pen of mud and grass, there might be pieces that stayed. Moments that held outside memory. He offers his hands: cracked and written in grease. His fingers, my future. Home is broken skin. The place I am sliding back to: curled on the floor, before a wooden coffee table. Chewing at corners. Breaking in teeth to meet the world. Press my hands against her cold feet and become a ball at her heels. Lay my cheek on her cold broken skin and press back against wood. Moos and squeals and grunts outside the window take her away from me. Cause her to rise. Always away toward their sounds. Sounds that become the beeping of my alarm as the thumb in my mouth turns into the tip of his finger on my lip. I want to make his hands my boundary. To keep me from the places where she lives. Where I become this thing I am. On my mother’s farm the lines on her heels fill with dirt that never goes away.


***

The laundry room is packed with baby chickens. Huddled under heat lamps. Preparing to grow large. Boxes of yellow fur. Outside it is too cold for anything this small to survive. A few of them do not make it. Trampled. Lying still without movement. Waking up, they are my only thought. The first place I go each morning. Are the chickens ok? He is shaving. The water runs. I remember everything that has happened. So much that has happened between there and here. I rush to make sure they are moving. As long as they are moving everything is ok. I peek my head over the edge of boxes. Too small to see into corners. Blindly I rustle them from the edges with my girl hands. On tip-toes I count to make sure they are all there. The light warms my skin. So hot I am afraid they might burn. They might burn away right there in the boxes without ever having a chance to go outside.


***

All night my mother and my sister take turns watching pigs. I am too small. If the mother rolls over and squashes one of the piglets, I have to be able to roll her off. I have to be big enough to move a large sow. But I am not. All night for weeks they sit out in pens watching. They string painter’s lights and attach them to fence posts. They sit on upside down buckets. Move new pigs from nipple to nipple. Help the runts find a way in. Rearrange the snouts to make room. To assure the greatest possible survival rate. The mothers lie on their sides and let it happen. When they try to get up the little pigs don’t know what to do. I want to sit beside them, but my mother tells me to go to bed. To sleep. That the pigs will be ok. That she will keep watch on my favorites. See that they make it through the night. I lie in bed and try to forget about pigs. Try not to hear their snorts and grunts. He rubs my back and tells me that it is time to get up. That I am late for work. I worry about my mother. Out there watching. Who has made it through the night? Where have they put the ones that got squashed?The ones that do not move again. In winter, the truck brings white packages we stack neatly in the freezer. The bacon he cooks for me now at breakfast comes in plastic, not paper. When I make it out of this bed, I will eat my way forward, away from those hooves, those feet. Chew toward a field fenced in by broken hands. His oil-stained knuckles keeping me from home.


***

Everything else that goes on is secondary, inconsequential outside of what happens inside that barn. That barn keeps us alive. The cows go in, the cows go out. This is my mother’s breath. Her body taking in and letting go. Here, I know more of milk than blood. Tubes of white liquid run above our heads. I scoop feed into their stalls. One scoop for small cows, two for big. It is the only thing I am large enough to do for them. I can barely reach their feed trough, but I know if I eat more I can make myself bigger. I can do what she does. She lets me gather eggs. Tells me to go out to the coop while she finishes up here. But I know all of the chickens and all of the eggs and all of the pigs could be lost, as long as these cows keep making milk. Keep coming back to this barn and offering their plump utters. My mother’s hands on a cow’s body. Cuts filled with iodine. Purple and cracking. This is where I begin. To wake up inside those hands and spend each hour working away from them. The fullness of swollen fingers slathered in cream that coats each cut. I try so hard to help him. To make his body heal. He offers me the places where it hurts. Shows me what has happened to his body each day at work. I want to be those places. Live in the dry split flesh of his fingers that might keep me from here.


***

She sends me to the chicken coop. I count seconds. Move quickly. Please no snakes this time. Once, eggs and a snake. I scream. My mother comes with a rake and kills. She smashes it open and snake guts and broken yellow raw egg yolk ooze onto the dirt floor. Now I know better. I gather the eggs quickly from all the nests and little dimpled hay piles the chickens have made for themselves. Sometimes the eggs are warm, with feathers still clinging to the shell. There is one nest I save for last. A very high nest I cannot see into. I hold my breath and reach inside and gather the eggs one by one. Each time I am afraid. No. No snake. He shakes me and wonders why I push away. He tells me to get up. But what about the eggs? He tells me my breakfast is ready. That it has been on the table waiting, getting cold. No. I have to bring them inside. I have to find each one.


***

In the backfields, far away, there is an old barn. The old barn and the cement foundation of what must have been the old house. This is not the building in which my mother spends each morning and each evening milking cows. This is not that barn. Nothing out here is used. Sometimes, in the late afternoons the cows end up out here. They do not come to the main barn at their usual time. What are they doing here? It is far away. You must cross many creeks to make it. I am looking for them, but they are not here. I must bring them in. It is one of my chores to herd them in. Where have all the cows gone? I am sure they came out this way, but all I see is glass. Broken glass bottles sparkling. The sun going down. Glass that becomes beer bottles shining in the light on our nightstand. He drinks beer out of bottles and leaves them scattered around the bedroom. I wake up to half-empty bottles of brown flat beer. I cannot tell who is doing all the drinking. It helps with the pain. The pain of his broken cracked body. This is a different place. Abandoned. Someone had to have made the decision to relocate the central buildings. An unused barn. I ask him why he thinks they never tore it down. Why they left it here. He answers me in water. A voice muffled by faucet. He tells me it is time to get up. He tells me to put my body under water and let him remember the rest.


***

The land here has many ponds. This is the most likely spot to find cattle. Drinking murky water. Sticking their noses in where the pond becomes dirt. Lapping up dirt and mud on their tongues. On hot days they go farther. Soak their bodies in muddy shallow water. The location of water becomes important to the map of the terrain. In order to remember how to find your way back: the slope that signals the edge of a pool, the decent toward water, the angle of rise that determines how much energy is necessary to reach the crest and see the direction of return. The door to our hallway where he waits for me. This is not moving water. Not like the shower on my large tired body or the ocean he and I live by now. This water is surrounded by stillness. The absence of movement. There is no sway here. Only green or brown still water. There are ripples where a cow moves its body into water. Ripples coming out that move in only one direction. Unanswered. They disappear into the mud and stop. No back and forth. The quiet of water still against dirt. And the cow. Standing there in water. The only pull is between all the water that is here and all the water that is not here.


***

At night, fireflies. Through the grass, running without shoes. Church going ladies come over for Tupperware parties. We bar-b-que and play outside. The air, heavy in the dark, makes you lie down in dirt and grass. Stars. All the stars. The animals are quiet. We eat pot luck food. Fruit salads. Canned vegetables. Ambrosia. The yard is surrounded by fields on all sides. In each direction long grasses. Slopes and angles. Fields that reach toward rows of trees. The barn at night is empty and dark. Clean and waiting for morning. This whole place, everything that goes on here exists at the end of a dirt road. A dead end. Nothing goes through. Nothing goes on. There is not a next house: this becomes important. I ride my bike down the dirt road to the creek and walk it back up and ride back down again. Over and over. Coasting down and walking up. Until my mother calls me in. I am learning how to move inside this space.


***

My mother calls me from her new condo in Phoenix. She needs a phone number, a date, some information. She begins to tell me how she planted nasturtiums and cucumbers yesterday in her patio garden. I see her in the dirt in flimsy sandals and no gardening gloves. She has mentioned before that sometimes she thinks about the cows. Sometimes she dreams them. I tell her that I do not have time for this. I tell her that I have no idea what she means. I cannot talk. I have to go to work now. I gather my things. He puts his arms around my body. Makes a space where I might be. Pushing against skin, moving toward home. Outside, I breathe still air. I smell dirt roads. She is in the barn. She is on her knees. She milks and milks. She cannot stop. I am becoming a woman I do not know. A woman with cold cracked hands and cold cracked feet.

KAREN EMBRY is an instructor of composition and literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Davis, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Sacramento State University, a B.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, and an A.S. in Science from City College of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2014, boundry2, Pacific Review, Poetry Now, Santa Clara Review, Southern California Review, Symposium, and elsewhere.