Home, Home on the Ranch, Or: How I Grew to Love Language
The ranch was all sweet smelling when I got home from my year in Asia. I never felt far away from the ranch when I was gone, I would just close my eyes and go there. I came out of the airport with my bags and there was Mom in dark green shorts and a green shirt. I changed into my blue dress in the car since we were late, telling Mom more about Thailand. --Your nipple is showing, she said casually.
We meandered out of Los Angeless unsure of which highway we would be taking to the tiny airport where her Rotary fundraiser was, but confident that we'd get there eventually. The car was covered in dust, and on the inside, hay on the floor and mouse smell coming from the AC vents. Mom doesn't really know where she's going but she doesn't mind, one of few traits of hers I share and so it makes me relieved--at least I got aimless wandering from somebody.
--So I was up milking-I'm letting the babies nurse Gabriel since she is hard to milk. Milking her is one of those two-finger jobs, said Mom.
--Sounds sounds like a stiff drink. I'd like a two finger job on the rocks! I said.
--A sex act, more like.
I told mom the highlights: drawing with children in Prachinburi. The Muslim grandmother in Phuket who I thought judged me for wearing a two piece and drinking a beer on the beach, and then, when I snorkeled and noticed all the leopard fish coming to me in flurries, she turned out to be throwing bread in my direction so the fish would come.
California is just so fucking California. There's no other way to put it. We passed an accident on the 101 after getting fajitas at Taco Bell. We passed a guy getting loaded into an ambulance—he was blinking, so not as bad as could have been. Traffic slowed on both sides. The late-day glint in the stripe of black road-repair on the 101, making slight bumps you could feel in the car. Mountains striped with vegetation and incorrigible sea, then rolling hills dotted with oaks again. The cottonwoods were amazingly bare on their lower halves, and the dogs' muzzles were whiter now and the zebras were down to three after a winter sickness took a majority of the herd. The illegal kitten I had in my dorm room before graduating, Beanie, is now a big and beautiful cat and much more sociable. I pet him for a long time, and his motor purr revved up immediately. I raised Beanie rubbing my cheek against his cat-cheek like I was another kitty saying hello. The cats were attendant to mom as she sorted her pills, like vitamin sentinels.
We stopped in the haze-burning-off to see my sister. As ever her eyes and expression were arresting as all hell. She'd given blood without eating. She was buying a car—she pulled in front of her little purple house near the Carrillo St exit in a battered boatlike volvo. People around us spoke English—I'd forgotten what it was like to listen to the conversations of other people in the room.
I was pretty spaced out. Sycamores, jacarandas--the trees that look like human bodies they're so smooth. I walked between my mother and my sister, hearing the flap of my flipflops. I told them about my tumultuous relationship with flipflops all year, and my visit to Cambodia—but already the valleys and epochs and heavy air of Asia were receding into my ribcage and skull. I'd do some paintings from photos, and they'd look at those for a few moments, and that's about all they'd let in. Asia is a purple spiral inside, nesting among the vital organs.
We walked somewhere where there was vegan food since I guess my sister is into that right now. The waitress spoke English, and everyone looked like a surfer Adonis. I mean, whoa. To have access to vegan food instead of whatever fried rice happened to be served. To know what was in the food. To ask for things on the side. I discussed this with Kyle at length when we were really drunk after going to Cambodia and seeing the killing fields—the problem I have with aesthetic preference is that it presupposes a certain privilege and safety and access. Thus my inability to be a natural at fine dining.
--Do you know Mitchell, Ann's brother?
--Not directly, I said, --I know Ann pretty well. She was my first visiting student at Morrow and cradled my sobbing head in her arms that day even though she was just a visitor.
--Her brother Mitchell hanged himself a couple days ago, said mom matter of factly.
I covered my face with my hands and my sister rubbed my arm with a touch that reminded me why she was a healer.
--Why this way? I kept on. --It's not the most painless way to go and it has to be the most horrendous way for a family member to find you. More pain than necessary, all around.
I looked past Mom at the Santa Barbara Mission across the street. The day seemed soaked in white, even the turf in a wash. Grief always had the color of bone to me.
Mom said, --I wish I could find a way to tell the kids in the middle of despair that feels like their whole lives because it IS their whole life: your first broken heart, say, when you only have that romance to refer to, feels that big because in the life of a young person it is that big. But that it won't be.
I looked over at my sister's clear eyes. She could make her face like a sculpture sometimes, like an angel in the Louvre.
--A broken heart is like a summer when you're young, said Mom, --It goes on for ages when you're inside it and as the years go by they rush past.
Mom and I headed back through a white and shapeless afternoon. We drove on to Buellton, not talking and instead Mom let me play with the radio even though radio irritates her because for the first time in a year I could turn on the radio and hear LED ZEPPELIN! We had to pick up Dad's car from the shop. I was looped out and afraid I wouldn't remember how to drive. And first we had to swing onto a busy four lane road and flip a bitch to get going in the right direction. I marveled at all of us stopping like obedient ducklings at the light. Something happened after I got on the freeway though. My motor-body picked up and up went my right hand out the sunroof like always, fingering the warm air. I relaxed and drove home. Mom was waiting for me inside the gate.
The air smelled so fucking sweet. Dying oatweed, I guess, if I had to deconstruct it, but mostly is smelled like going swimming afternoons. The pool is gone now. But it smelled like it was time to swim. My room was Dad's old office in the barn. When Dad used it it was ceiling high with paper piles and cobwebs and boxes. It had a new paint job and a big futon. When I came out in old boxers and nothing else Mom was looking for one of the two baby goats.
--The white one was gone yesterday and Petey [my sister's big dog] found her yesterday. I can't find either the brown goatie or Peetey.
I didn't say anything but I was worried. I walked out the west end of the barn, to where Dad used to feed the Nilgai, and saw Petey sitting there past the fence and odd obstacles like mattress springs that Jake and Dad had erected sometime in the last two years. She was an inert pile of brown fur on his paws. Oh no. I couldn't get through. I went back into the barn.
--Petey has her but I don't know if he's done something to her.
Mom picked up her stride from the goat stanchion. --Where are they? she barked.
--Outside but I couldn't get through that way, I said, and we hurried through the work room.
Mom approached. Petey got up and Mom shooed him. She stood over the heap of four day old goatie. --Yep, she's dead, she said, gathering Lucille up into her arms.
--Little one, she said, cradling. --There's no blood. I wonder if he just broke her neck.
--He was probably trying to shake her, playing, I offered.
--Little one, said Mom again. She lay her down on the work table, wondering aloud whether to show the mother goat since the mother goat was worried about her missing one. I pet Lucille. She was still warm.
--Thank you for finding them, honey, Mom said.
--I don't think I did very much.
--I'm sorry, dear, Mom said through the stall bars to Gabrielle, the mother goat. --We didn't take good enough care. To the remaining baby she said, --You're one goatie now. Your sister got offed.
Lucille was on the floor of the stall now, her mother looking over at her time and time again but not going near. --I'll leave her there for Gabrielle to understand what happened and get rid of her in the morning, Mom said, and walked to the sink.
--The barn is smaller than when I was a kid. This used to feel monstrous, I said, gesturing toward the room where hay bales used to climb to the ceiling, the same space where Mom cleaned her milk pans. There was blood on her shirt. There was a box of dusty plays, really dusty books, Ibsen and such, Camus, and under it old office paper—screenplays with my dad's handwriting in the margins. Mom tried to fit in one of those ice packs with the dimensions of a huge Klondike bar next to the jars of goat milk in the old Coscto vanilla ice cream tubs she'd filled with water. It wouldn't fit. --You'll have to fend for yourselves, she told the jars and shut the door.
Mom lived in Berkeley in the sixties. Before grad school she'd worked as a model. There was a photo of her in a brand new 1964 Cadilla at the top of that road in San Fran that's supposed to be the curviest in the world. She stopped modeling when some photographer told her she needed to lose 5 pounds. She'd slept on Taj Mahal's living room floor once.
--That's that, said Mom, then she repaired down to the house to watch the track stars in Beijing.
Ming Holden grew up on a zebra farm and went to hippie commune schools. She cofounded and served as editor-in-chief of the Brown Literary Review while attending Brown's literary arts program. Her translations, journalism, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Connecting Lines: New Poetry From Mexico, The Poker, Prospect, The Santa Barbara Independent, and The Santa Ynez Valley Journal. She's just returned from spending her year as a Luce Scholar trying to get Mongolian writers to stop fighting long enough to create a Mongolian PEN Center. Her translations of Vicky Allyon's poems appeared in issue #42. See more of her work here.