BY PETER STRECKFUS
My child, ringing in the distance, even at a distance, through the sheer gates of mind, I hear you. You are in the school, in the public speech of learning, lifted from the tongues of the whole and shared with you. It has its own sinister poetics, the yeas and nays, the abstentions of the body public and politic. My child, I hear you even now. As you waste and build, speak and hear among your peers. For what do we prepare you. How little we are able to judge from the ordinary habits of life. Which occur only at long intervals. Not at all and then at will. So the dreaded school year starts, not a good sign, in your opinion. Last September, the nursery teacher came to the house to talk with us—more with us than with you—not a good sign. But now you long for her, her high heels and her skirts, her songs of the ABCs. How do you fit your rhymes into those songs you sing these days—the lower parts veiled in fleecy clouds, conical hills, fluffy mountains, and land-like tables— and can we go there? On the weekend perhaps if there is time. For now it starts in earnest, the soft collective punishment of taking a break and of silence, for we have learned to judge anything but our own happinesses, and we do not mind a little skirmish. Three weeks ago, the Pacific wore its thin veil of smoke. You were in its simulacrum, a saltwater pool by the townhouses, summer afternoon repeated. In English “the most beautiful words.” I see you through your eyes, their piercing catch of mind as you master the intake of breath above its reflection—water in the body of your little boat, nearly five years on the earth, the pool too deep for you to touch. For days later, I record it, like Wharton’s repetition of James’s, transcribed and altered, against the impossibility. Impenetrable time, I record this here. Meanwhile, the Ferguson Fire, and the Carr, and the Mendocino Complex fire, the largest on record in California, 459 thousand acres, raged in the north. Meanwhile, the Holy Fire, named after Holy Jim Canyon, where it began when a man named Forrest gave it to his neighbors, flamed over the saddled crest of Saddle Back, on its way through its first 18 thousand acres, visible from our pool, twelve miles away. And the air above Lake Elsinore rose each summer afternoon and drew wind from the Pacific, so the fire respired down canyon in sun, then up at night. The fire’s down-up-canyon movement each day named for the lake, the Elsinore effect, the lake itself named for Hamlet’s house on fire, for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use. The surface limns and breaks across your goggles in summer afternoon—you break your stroke and raise your resolutely sealed lips above it, your lungs a sound that brings the bodies of disaster into view in all their clear abstraction. You come to me, you steal your breaths. In memory, like a word. It pushes through the air. It comes to the ear. It cries out, cut from its mother, I am born. At the embarcadero, we’d ridden the ferris wheel. We’d had ice cream. We did not shop. We didn’t have time. We played in the sand yard on the shore. A Gulliver-sized statue of a foot, a head, a knee, a hand, coming out of the sand. We did not ride the merry-go-round. We did not have time. We were leaving, walking back to the lot. And your sister turned to run for a fountain. She followed you who’d just bolted for the fountain. And I grabbed her by the arm to keep her near. To keep her from being at the fountain, I held her by the arm, by the hand. I turned quickly to catch her. A kind of arrest. I kept her. While you ran until I caught you. To catch. What is it I want to say? I am not gentle. It was quick—as her bolt was quick. It was fierce, as if to say, no never. As if to say, I catch you—have you in hand. To defeat her flight. Is this what a father does, as if to say, do not try to escape again—not when you are within my reach. As if from the sky. As if from my half sleep. Do not wake me in my confusion. You, keen on the souvenir in the market, with your song and your cloud architects rising from their tables, pouring their structures in concrete. I spoke to your mother tonight after we put you and your sister to sleep. She said she hoped I could be happy soon. She wished me to be gentle with you. When you cry, hurt or enraged, the philtrum, the medial cleft of your upper lip, stretches transformed. I feel my esophagus, like a scabbard, tighten. How to remove the story without depending on force. How to reach you, standing at the door, wanting nothing more from me in the room than the half-thought substance of my own attention. To be noticed. See me, Daddy. Daddy, look closely. I have a magic trick to show you. Anger comes so easily out of me, my author, since you died. By the time you were old, you seemed empty of it. You were a punisher: punitive strikes with the belt. I don’t want to tell my son this. I don’t know how often the welts on my legs were there. Were they normal to me? But I know they were not a surprise. Seen as a sign, that you had whipped me too hard—an apology. My mind fills and runs, nervous, as I try to enter this room with you. As you strayed from details of the punishments you suffered under your father. Daddy, watch this coin. Where did it exit the world? A school of koi in the shallow beneath a pier turn over one another, churning. One, many, have a kind of pink wound on the back, circular, as if a sticker from a banana, as if a coin of their flesh had been removed. You were a punisher. You would abide little dissent. Now I am the punisher, time as the divisor. Without us, in its own undulating place and time, the blaze rises in the sky. Its heat creates its own wind, feeding it more oxygen, violence proceeding from it as if on command, as if automated. Round the world, a chain of supervision, the hurt and pain of that. From the ridge I watch its tint, refracted through smoke in the distance, a robin’s blood orange, a koi’s, a dark safety cone—a train cuts through the valley, the hills terraced with those who can and cannot—in the veil, as if to meet the day’s first aerial tanker drop a sheet of retardant, it raises its volcanic head, the Holy Fire. Time as the divisor, your sister folds like a knife in her inflatable donut and “teleports,” bottom first, into the pool’s deep end. You pull through the water your slender hero’s body, raise your head, gasp, and thrash your nonce breast stroke further toward me.