Like Breathing Rain
The best part of every day: walking down the steps
to the beach, each stone set into the hillside, mossy
with green water, held close. Today, it’s high tide
and the ocean laps at the bottom rock, leaving
a mixing of rain and sea, a salty waterfall.
I stand on that lip and tell myself: don’t be anxious.
But does that ever work? Can we banish our anxiety
with a deep breath? Maybe some can. They follow steps
in books, advice from yoga teachers. They hum up a waterfall
in their chests. They hold the long in their light, mossy
bodies. It’s possible, right? I lift my foot, kick a few yellow leaves
into the sea. Watch them float, watch them ride the slow tide
out. Once we were windless on our sailboat, watching tide rips
flow past our hull, feeling the fog fall down. We rang the bell, anxious
to avoid being run over by the barges going by, leaving
trails of foghorn and exhaust. Then out of the fog: black rocks—like steps
into the sky—rose the fins of orcas, black backs rising out of mossy
green water. In the hush we heard their breaths waterfall
mist back into the sky, as they rode through the fog, a fall of water
into water. Such deepness! Such assurance that quiet would come, that the tide
would rise again. I study the glossy stones at my feet now, embracing the very moss
that will eventually crack them open. Certainty and quiet. No anxiety
about who will walk them down. I wonder who else treads these stairs?
Two days ago, coming down, I found a steaming pile of leavings.
Porcupine, I think. A warm nest of quills and a belly of grasses and leaves.
I turn to watch the stream rush down; thanks to hard rains, now a waterfall
of twigs, small stones, pine needles. If the rain gets any harder the steps
will be flooded. I’ve seen it happen. And when there’s a late summer high tide
the carcasses of salmon wash up, their ghost bodies done with the anxious
laying of eggs. Their spines now food for eagles, who carry strips to mossy
nests a mile up the mountain. I imagine an eaglet, or two, talons buried in moss,
mouths buried in rich salmon meat. They watch their parents come, then leave,
then come again, laden with more fish. Their eyes on the empty sky, bellies anxious
for more. Once I stood under a salmon nest, and felt a rain of leaves, a waterfall
of twigs, as a parent landed, heavily, in the nest. I was silent, wanting a tide
of sound to wash down, the sounds of food passing, beak to beak, that stepping
into relief. I imagine I’m only beak, feathers, water. I won’t fall. I sleep on moss
in a quiet fog that laps at the edges of my nest. Tides in and out, leaving
droplets to drink. This is how I try. This is how I try to step away, from all anxiety.
Yes, that moment of delight when you come across a cairn—
white rocks, balanced perfectly, or imperfectly, in the hollow
of light at sunset, tucked against a volcanic wall, its salty
face soothed with moss. Now these smooth stones
as a front door into peace. Have you too stroked
the top rock, hoping it won’t fall? Admired the nesting
brilliance? Felt that connection to someone not from your nest
but who feels it too? Another woman, who speaks the language of cairns
and wind and rainfall? And you can’t help feeling—what a stroke
of luck, finding this here, still standing. Even though the hollowing
wind should have toppled it. Even though the story of these stones
is unknown. Still, you imagine, you’re lucky. Still, you think: even salt
can’t unravel every stone. But now, when you lick your salty
lips, you worry. Who will unravel my house? Who will kick the nest
I’ve built around each, precious daughter? You want to set each stone
with intention. You are beautiful. You are strong. You belong. You cairn
your daughters, your friends, yourself, this way. But on some hollow
days this becomes impossible. One day you’re hit by a stroke
of lightening, a flash of hurt, that stuns you still. As if a stroke
has deadened half your body. As if a voice has turned your face to salt
without warning. You are just wind. You are just a set of hollow
bones that should be silent. A rock, unbalanced. But still, you nest
your babies, still you fly through the rain looking for small pebbles to cairn.
You stack mother, woman, teacher, writer. Feminist. All the stones
you’re built of, that you’re meant to keep balanced, stone by stone,
day by day. Or should you be unstacking? Just striking
it down? Letting a wave carry away first this, then that, until the cairn
is unmade? Yes, perhaps. Is teaching daughters to rise against salty
air even safe? You dig your hands in sand, imagine all the hidden nests
of crabs and small spiders, deep in the warm. Dark, hollowed
and safe. The nest of a sea turtle. Glistening eggs. But: those tiny bodies hollow
a path to the sea. You close your eyes, see the shimmering stones
of a turtle shell, the way she turns in blue water, lifts her strong legs, the nest
of her breath rising to the surface. You reach out to stroke
the shining stone of her head. Ah. There it is again: that sharp, salty
taste of hope. Your teeth, your knees, even your empty fists, now cairns
in the hollow air. Sister, listen. Today let’s not allow them to stroke
our tracks out of the sand. Let’s not be only tumbled stone and salt.
Let’s nest our names, one on top of another: still here, still rising. Cairns by the sea.
In the deepness of an October evening I watch
these evanescent bubbles, champagne
trails rising, then bursting. What do I desire? Pine
for? Bumping into friends and dogs under pine
boughs, rich with rain, on the beach trail. Watching
my plane’s wings lift above pink champagne
clouds. Hundreds of us, at a wedding, drunk on champagne
and a thousand hugs. Now tonight, only a fire of pine
boughs, as evening falls. A celebration of nothing. Watching
embers burn into ash, watching a single pine needle, fizz and die.
About the Poet
Emily Wall is a Professor of English at the University of Alaska. She has been published in a wide variety of literary journals in the US and Canada, most recently in Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. In 2013 she won a statewide contest and a poem of hers was placed in Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan, Alaska. Her first two books were published by Salmon Poetry. Her chapbook Flame won the 2019 Minerva Rising chapbook contest. Her most recent collection, titled Breaking into Air, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Emily lives and writes in Juneau, Alaska.