li sao

Future in the Past

Lady Sun is soon to rise as from her bath

refreshed she comes to greet her grandson Hiro

and Dai Nihon, great land of her ascension.

Her mirror hides behind the fine silk curtain

in the Naiku, her inner shrine at Ise,

raised on twenty-eight naked cypress piles,

under a row of ten round smooth roof timbers,

encircled by four fences, laid out in squares

and entered through twin torii, sacred gateways

to the divine within, for the pure of heart.

The pathway leading to Amaterasu

Omikami’s house is flanked on either side

by huge cryptomerias whose branches point

beyond Uji bridge that crosses the Isuzu,

beckoning in after hands wash and mouths rinse.

The purest architecture of Yamato

rebuilt with ancient care every twenty years;

the present moving through the old Mikado.

Hiro comes, near the close of the year of horse,

in dim predawn light, full of unspoken doubts,

to commune before the goddess’ bronze mirror.

He stands in awe: the temple precinct shimmers

with centuries of unseen ghosts of worship,

of careful custody by his ancestors—

the virgin daughters of emperors long past 25

in white silk kimonos preserving the way

of the divine in union with the fleeting.

The scene evokes remotest antiquity,

of a time when the granary was divine,

a time when harvest and hearth were vocations

not of time, but of union with the timeless.

Times that Hiro had but little time for now,

his island country at war with the world—

and worse, with America, the mighty land

of western freedom. One long, full year ago,

right at the end of the year of the serpent,

his generals had air-bombed Pearl Harbor,

launching a war he wasn’t sure they could win.

And now, his whole people kill themselves for him

whom they take for a god, the son of a god,

head of a nation destined to rule all

by virtue of its divine descent. But he

was sure he was but human, all-too-human,

unable to control his own counselors,

ministers, secretaries and officers—

decisions were not his but in appearance.

Hadn’t he urged Tojo many months ago

to lose no opportunity to make peace,

and not to prolong a war without purpose

that would only make the people suffer more? 50

And the losses kept piling up, all year long—

the Marshall and Gilbert Island reprisals,

the air-raid of Tokyo in early springtime,

the summer losses at Midway, the battles

of the Solomon Islands all through the fall.

How long could his armies hold back the nearing

tsunami of global force out of the east?

If he was divine, why were his fervent prayers

for peace to Amaterasu still ignored?

In his mind he tumbled through the legacies

back and down the byways of his dynasty

seeking in the legends and the stories, as

he prayed the goddess intervene to save them,

for the key to averting sheer destruction.

His father Taisho, dead at his accession,

whose father Meiji led Japan to greatness

after emperor Komei’s failure to break

the Tokagawa shoguns’ hold in Edo. . .

then back, before the southern barbarians

had beached and brought the miracle of muskets,

he thought of Go-Daigo and the great schism

between Jimyoin and Daikakuji factions—

Go-Saga favored his son Kameyama

over his older son Go-Fukakusa,

and so the imperial family branched 75

into rival seats of power; however,

Kameyama repulsed a huge Mongol horde,

then his son, Go-Uda, did so once again

when Kublai Khan’s armada was destroyed by

kamikaze, a typhoon of wind divine—

then back through centuries more of court romance

playing the incessant game of sovereignty

dying for the royal jewel and the sword

by turns, of intrigue and of abdication,

plottings and revenge by puppeteers of boys,

when emperors retired young to practice

power behind the scenes as Zen Buddhist priests.

The long preeminent Fujiwara clan

kept the graceful court in subtle refinement

as Chinese ways were forged into Nihongo

in Heian and, before that, in great Nara

where the glow of T’ang was felt in arts and ways,

from script and taxes to Buddha and K’ung Fu.

Then quickly back through the dark prehistory

into the realm of culture heroes and war gods,

giants, saviors from plague, and founders of rites,

when finally he reached the founder Jimmu

who marched along the shore from far Kyushu

and pacified the heartland of Yamato

some twenty-six hundred and two years ago; 100

and still his tomb is seen near Mt. Unebi.

And his ancestor, Ninigi, the goddess’

grandson, received the sacred regalia,

one of which, the mirror, is interred right here.

This contemplation of genealogy,

whereby Hiro confirmed his deep foundation,

eased his mind a bit; even if his status

as a god could not be counted on, he still

felt rooted in a durable tradition. . .

just maybe his great race would prevail again.

Hiro bows in awe, calm-hearted.

Now the day

comes up, a chrysanthemum upon the eyes

of morning.

Out at sea, fire in the sky,

is its omen hopeful or of dread?

Who knows?

The stars have fled before the goddess’ rising.

On board the warship U.S.S. Augusta,

westward transantlantic bound for Washington,

President Truman was finishing his lunch

when an officer approached with a dispatch.

Truman reads it and his face beams with delight,

for all his terror dissolved into the light

of full triumph. All his gambles had paid off.

Exalted he sits, contemplating his fate,

recalling his shrewd designs pulled off of late.

Seated round a table round, world leaders— 125

lately made supreme by suicide of that

foul genocidal imp who, in the name of

racial purity, befouled all Europe’s folk

with reeking memory of Auschwitz, Bergen-

Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen,

Kulmhof, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka,

six million faces vanished into gas clouds

as though no one would notice ghosted ghettos—

hold high council in Potsdam’s polluted air.

Outside, the rubble of Allied air raids lies

awaiting resurrection. Axis powers-

that-were hand their guns to powers-now-to-be.

Here the Big Three have swarmed to parcel the globe

amongst themselves, over teas, wines, and dinners,

while armies frozen on the borders hungry

wither away their youth awaiting orders

to march, to fire, to bathe new lands in blood.

At center-table, three kid-size flags trisect

the table: the stars and stripes in red, white, blue,

the Union Jack, his Majesty’s grand ensign,

and hammer and sickle fixed on red background.

Two ministers and aides sit at either hand

of each of the leaders, fifteen men in all;

smoke and murmurs fill the room, clearing of throats,

and the creak of chairs; scribbled scripts and ashtrays 150

lie at hand, word weapons, out on the table.

After a day of tough negotiations,

in which the Polish delegates were rebuffed

and told their border would be settled later,

the chairman of the conference Harry Truman—

once a pig farmer back in Independence,

Missouri, who once served the local big boss

of the Democratic Party in Jackson

County, whose backing guaranteed the ballots,

he now stood face to face with world titans

engineering the chance to drop the big one

that would prove, once and for all, he was a man—

adjusts his spectacles and ends the session.

As planned, he rises and approaches Stalin

with nonchalance, without his interpreter,

and casually tells him “we have a new

weapon of unusual destructive force.”

Uncle Joe, Generalissimo Stalin—

the Georgian-born abrek (dark Tariel’s land,

Medea’s Colchis, rack of Prometheus),

the son of a drunken cobbler of Gori,

abused and hungry, ground down by poverty,

love beaten out of him, forged into hatred

incarnate in his disfigured left elbow,

inciter of riots, face of pseudonyms, 175

Koba, David, Soso, ‘Leopard’, or Stalin,

a man whose heart had frozen in the Arctic

wasteland of Siberia, whose initials

had checked by now the names of tens of thousands

of traitors on deathlists signed over breakfast—

heard the President through his interpreter

and did not flinch, he held his smile and said:

“Tell him, I’m glad to hear it, and that I hope

they will make good use of it against the Japs.”

Truman, giddy with the bluff, then goes outside

to tell the waiting Prime Minister the ruse.

“How did it go?” pudgy Churchill inquired

as he puffed on a six-inch Cuban cigar,

a man whose hours in power were numbered

(such fickle forces are fortune and favor)

but who was still eager for dinner and drinks—

Churchill wanted nothing more than for Russia

to never get a hold on the atomic

weapon by which he and the United States

would rebuild Britain’s ruined world power,

and so he had rambled, as an old man will,

at every session about each touchy point,

Italy, Germany’s navy, Poland’s place,

embittering his peers against each other—

a cold whisky would be nice right now, he thought. 200

“He never asked a question,” Truman replied.

So ended the Big Three’s week of vital talks.

Little did they know what Stalin knew by now

about the atomic bomb, since a crafty

fox had been snatching hens from Los Alamos

and handing them off to Russia free of charge,

so great was Klaus Fuchs’ devotion to the cause

of sharing modern science with the Party.

So all were satisfied with this poker game.

Truman could claim he was an honest ally:

he had indeed told Stalin about the bomb.

He and Churchill believed they had deceived him.

Klaus Fuchs had helped Stalin hoodwink both of them.

Churchill had divided Truman and Stalin.

So the Cold War nuclear arms race began.

Japan’s pleas for surrender would be ignored.

“Lull them to sleep,” Stalin said. Truman agreed.

The Potsdam Declaration sealed their fate.

Mokusatsu was difficult to translate.

But it made no difference anyway because

the bomb was signed and sealed, ready to drop

before the declaration; the money spent

on Trinity insured its revelation.

Let’s just say, August sixth, nineteen forty five

loosed the sixth seal of the Apocalypse, 225

the universal hush and fear of falling

Thermonuclear Holocaust, the horror

of the Twentieth Century of our Lord.

The view from ground zero was a goddamn hell.

Just the thought of versifying this foul scene

makes the teller feel dirty, sick, obscene.

Clouds of vaporized human flesh, the shadows

of former life etched by the fire on the walls—

who could, or possibly want, to tell it all?

Even the most war-hardened of officers,

inured to grisly death by endless trench days,

would double over and vomit through his tears

or, hearing the miserable screams unceasing

and seeing the chars of living death they flew from,

try to tear his ears off, rip his blurred eyes out

in vain.

In vain the bomb was a huge success,

in vain had Truman leveled Hiroshima:

the pacifist still wanted peace, bomb or no

bomb, the warmongers still clambered after war.

Three days later they leveled Nagasaki.

The ‘Fat Man’ had a heart of plutonium,

a volatile embodiment of pure rage.

The sad fact of exegesis we must face

is that the bomb did not even end the war.

The Japanese were trying to surrender 250

before Enola Gay took to the skyways.

It also sparked off the nuclear arms race,

the frigid, Sisypheanly cold Cold War

that gave its children feverish nightmare chills.

(But hush, my soul, and go on with the story.)

In Hiroshima dawn’s rose was brilliant blue.

It’s August, when the lotus blooms on pools

float like Shinto hearts pure and bright with kami,

spirits numinous whose awe stills every place.

The war effort had ravaged social order.

School children gathered rusty nails, tiles,

and wood shingles from the rubble of air raids.

Many townsfolk had evacuated town,

and fire lanes were torn through paper houses.

But, for all that, morning came as usual.

Mother’s fed their babies, fathers bid goodbye

to family and set out to factories

of harakiri. An early raid siren

had given way to the ‘All Clear’ in response.

At eight-sixteen a.m. a star exploded

eighteen-hundred feet above a hospital

in downtown Hiroshima. A flash of light,

half as hot as the boiling solar surface,

evaporated everything in its wake,

and in a millisecond, quicker than thought, 275

a raging fireball killed tens of thousands

of souls, then smoke, a massive mushroom pillar

shot up the sky, fiery white at the core,

liquidating the hopes and dreams of thousands,

liquefying sand on Ota’s river banks,

rippling earth like water in a spheric wake,

rolling thunder through the fiber of faces,

and all went black, insensate, blacker than night.

The fires raged, and dazed survivors straggled

to their senses, tried to make sense of the pain,

tried to feel their limbs, struggled to choke down

gulps of air, felt their skin slough off like peels.

Brains numb in agony gagged on the real—

this must be some Buddhist hell, some scathing dream—

but no, no dream could scream so loud to wake up,

got to get water, cool down, find a drink.

So they swarm the river, but not to cross it,

for there is no yonder shore beyond the flames,

but cower in boats as bodies float around

clogging the waterway, and the fallout fell,

a dusty black rain of nuclear ruin—

fallout that killed up to two hundred thousand

by the end of that long year of the rooster.

Bodies of ash, with spirits turned to shadow,

walk the red streets of the city of the dead, 300

hair in cinders, blood baked creatures, all is burned;

families tally up their tolls of pity.

They had no clue, Tokyo had not a clue—

they didn’t confirm the horrible reports

until evening on the eighth. By then Bock’s Car

was being armed with the plutonium bomb

that would gut Nagasaki the next morning.

By then Russia had already declared war

and rushed into Manchuria, Korea,

Sakhalin, and south into the Kuriles.

Stalin couldn’t let the U.S. get the best

of the Asian spoils. He had to act fast,

before peace talks could plunder his last excuse.

In days to come, maidens of Hiroshima

would peak into mirrors and see foul monsters;

their fair skin, their beautiful pride and joy, torn

and gnarled by fire, scarred like old tree bark.

So horrified, many could not face themselves.

In years to come, Dr. Tanimoto cared

for orphans and maidens disfigured by burns.

He campaigned to get them plastic surgery,

and finally Jewish and Quaker sources

funded his dream. Twenty-five women received

operations that transformed their appearance,

grafting their hearts with hope to renew their lives. 325

When General Douglas MacArthur arrived,

Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers,

the voice of the crane had already sounded,

the Divine Emperor had told his people

the depth of their defeat, of their surrender,

and papers had been signed aboard Missouri.

Hirohito, broken by pain and anguish,

requested an audience with MacArthur.

They sat down in front of an open fire

and Hiro took full responsibility

for his people, for their conduct in the war.

Some time later, Hiro visited Ise

to inform Amaterasu of defeat,

to praise Omikami for new peaceful days.

On New Year’s Day, Hirohito spoke again

and told his people that he was not a god,

but a human symbol of their unity,

that in their will resides true sovereign power.

Their new constitution bore this fair flower:

“Aspiring sincerely to world peace

based on justice and order, the Japanese

people forever renounce war as a right

of the nation, and the threat of or use of

force in settling international disputes.”

Hiroshima today, a risen phoenix, 350

stands as a shrine to the hope for world peace.

The rusty, bombed-out shell of the dome remains

a stark reminder on the city’s skyline.

But one name of the many hapless victims

has come to stand for all her murdered children.

Sadako Sasaki was two when the bomb

threw her from the breakfast table. Her mother

fled with her and her brother to the Ota

where they sat on a boat while the fallout rained.

She seemed fine as she grew, but when she was twelve,

the fastest runner in her class, she fainted

in the schoolyard. She was rushed to Red Cross.

She fell sick, with symptoms of leukemia.

As she lay dying in her hospital bed

she held high her hopes by folding paper cranes,

fabled to live for a thousand years, and if

one folded a thousand cranes the feat would cure

any disease. Sadako made nine hundred

and sixty four cranes before she died.

The rest

her classmates folded and laid in her coffin.

Inspired by her memory, her classmates

campaigned to have a monument built for her.

Sadako now, for traveler and pilgrim,

stands with upraised arms atop Horaiyama,

Japan’s mythical mountain of paradise, 375

holding above her a golden paper crane

forever, in Hiroshima’s Park of Peace.

And children everywhere now fold paper cranes

and string them in long chains as offerings here;

Mount Horai fills with children’s fragile wishes

for health and happiness and worlds of peace.

The visitor on August sixth will feel

the tenuous existence of a culture,

how cataclysm can transform tradition


And you will see the dome,

skeletal now, that once housed industrial

exhibitions—a cold symbol of this still.

You’ll see the cenotaph arch, below which lies

the names of all who have perished from the bomb.

You’ll see the mound that houses the unknown dead,

mere ashes awaiting names. And you will see

Sadako on Mt. Horai holding her crane.

The plaque on the Peace Park cenotaph reads:


The Children’s Monument to Sadako pleads:


Today the sun shines bright on Hiroshima,

as though her fury had not been unleashed here.

You would think the human race might shine on too.

You would think there’s history after the bomb. 400

The Japanese still share their northern islands

with the Ainu people, native hunter tribes

with thick black curly hair and long shaggy beards,

whose women used to tattoo on moustaches

(a custom that has, like others, died out now).

Driven, over centuries, to Hokkaido,

the Ainu have been displaced by Russia too,

and now number around twenty-five thousand,

though in the past they were a greater nation.

Among them mountain black bears are deities

who come down from the hills to visit mortals

because they find our world so delightful.

Once in a village two brothers shared a house.

The men, skilled seal hunters, went on a hunt,

leaving their wife alone, digging up tubers

on the slopes of a solitary mountain.

As she dug up roots, a fine young man appeared

out of the forest. He had a fine black beard.

He asked for her pipe, “I will give you a smoke,”

he said. But she, her heart was pounding, dared not

take his tobacco. But she smoked from her own

and he joined her. They finished. He asked again,

again she refused, then he reached out his hand,

took her pipe and stuffed his own tobacco in.

He lit it and compelled her to take a puff. 425

Suddenly her shyness fled and he kissed her.

He helped her gather up tubers and quickly

she had a full basket. He asked her to be

his wife, and she agreed. Then they were married.

She returned to her house and her husbands came

home with a catch of seals. She was cooking

and let her sister hang the men’s wet boots up.

They feasted on seal that night with neighbors

and she refused to sleep with either husband.

Next day the men went fishing. She went out back

with a bowl of food in hand, and her husband

appeared again, beyond the eastern Nusa

whereon are hung bear skulls and willow shavings.

She gave him food. He ate and then slapped her

and she became a she-bear. He slapped himself

and turned into a he-bear. They both went off

up into the mountain.

At dusk the men came

home with a fish catch. Her sister told them all

just as she had seen it. The younger brother

fell into a rage. He set out quick in search,

with a band of men. For two, three months they searched,

until their food ran out and they disbanded.

The brother went on, hungry for six full days,

until he came to a bear’s den. There, inside,

his wife, his brother’s wife, had had two children. 450

He saw the bear-man there, lying on his back.

Enraged he cried, “Come out and fight me, bear-man!”

But the bear-man growled, “Take this box and be gone!

I give a gift in return. But if we fight,

you will die forever. Even if I die,

I will live again, quickly come back to life.

Take this box for your brother too, and be gone!”

At this the man swooned and fell into a dream

wherein the bear-man spoke and told him, “Arise,

return to the seashore, where you’ll find bear cubs.

Take them home and raise them among you as kids.

And bounty in bears and seals and salmon

will come to you in your life course unto death.

You shall wife, and your brother shall wife as well,

and you shall both have children, boys and girls,

and they will hunt and fish and have good fortune.”

So spoke the chieftain, seated round the fire,

telling the story to, about, the bear cub,

before they led him out of his holding cage.

The cub had been captured two winters ago

and brought up in the village. He has suckled

at the breast of the chieftain’s wife, his mother,

and now, midwinter, they are ready to send

the young god back to his parents in the hills.

Cold crisp air and snow thick in the willow trees 475

where the bear’s kin have come together to dance,

celebrate his sojourn, in the bear’s disguise,

back to Kamui Moshir, home of the gods.

Round the little bear’s cage the folk now gather;

the women and children sing and dance in time

to entertain his spirit, stir his ramat,

as the head Ekashi intones a yukar:

“O precious little high one, we salute you.

Listen! We nourished and raised you with great care.

Now you are grown, we send you to your parents.

When you come to them, speak well of us and tell

how kind we have been to you. Come back again,

and we will feast you again and send you off.”

They lead the god, rope-harnessed, out of his lodge,

parade him round the circle of the people

clapping excited, shooting short blunt arrows

to arouse and animate the little guest

until, quite provoked, to the delight of all,

they grab him and clamp his neck between two logs,

a man shoots a swift sharp arrow to the heart

spilling the blood, careful to catch it in cups,

and the little bear cub, their god guest, is gone.

They pass around the blood, the elders drink it

warm, smearing it into their beards, not a drop

must touch the ground. His head and hide are cut off, 500

carried into the house through the god’s east door,

and laid before the fire, Kamui Fuchi,

grandmother fire, beyond all opposites.

They place before him fish and millet dumplings,

and fine inao, prayer sticks of whittled willow,

then a portion of soup, stewed from his own flesh,

as the chieftain prays: “Divine one, take these gifts

to your parents and say, ‘an Ainu father

and mother have kept me safe, and now I’ve grown,

I come bearing dumplings, inao and dried fish.

Let’s rejoice!’ Tell them this and they will be glad.”

A reverent hush attends the god’s self-feast,

until the priest calls: “The little divine one

has finished his meal. Come friends, let us eat

and worship with him.”

He takes a cup, filled full,

offers drops to the fire, passes it round.

Then the corpse is carved and portioned out for feast,

as saké flows and song and dance soon follow.

This reveling feast goes on for three full days

until the god is gone.

Then his skull is placed

on a pole outside the house’s east window

along with prayer sticks, whittled offering trees,

and past bear skulls, mediators to the gods.

Big Raven (once told by Kamchatka shamans)

had captured a whale but could not send her 525

back to her brothers and sisters in the sea;

he didn’t know how. He asks Tenanto’mwan

for help and he tells him to go to the sea

and find some plants with white stalks and spotted hats.

Eat these, the spirits’ bodies, they will help you.

So Raven goes and finds some little fungi,

which had grown up from Tenanto’mwan’s spittle.

He eats some. They make him happy, make him dance,

then he sits and sees the whale swimming home

to its brothers and sisters. Big Raven says,

“This plant shall stay on earth, Tenanto’mwan.

Let all my children see what it will show them.”

The Eskimo tribes, across the Bering Strait,

tell similar tales about their Raven

and about whales.

Raven was on the beach

where he saw a whale-cow swimming too close.

When the whale came up, Raven donned his clothes,

pulled on his mask and snatched up his fire sticks

and flew out over sea. The whale opened

wide her jaws and Raven flew straight down her throat.

The shocked whale-cow snapped her jaws and sounded.

Raven, in the whale’s belly, found himself

at the entrance of a fabulous chamber.

At the further end a lamp was burning with

a beautiful woman seated there below. 550

The whale’s spine ran along the roof above,

her ribs curved round the walls. From the spine, a tube

dripped sleek oil slowly down into the lamp.

The woman saw him and cried: “How did you come

here? You are the first man to enter this place.”

Raven told her, and she had him take a seat

opposite her. She was the whale’s inua,

the whale’s soul. She served him a meal of

berries and oil, berries she had gathered

the year before. He stayed there four days with her,

all the while wondering what was that tube

along the spine. Each time she left the room, she

forbade him to touch it. But one time, she left

and he approached it, stretched out his claw and caught

a big oil drop. He licked it with his tongue.

Sweet, so sweet, he caught another, another,

too slow, so, in greed, he reached up, grabbed the tube,

broke a piece off and ate it.

A gush of oil

flooded the room, put out the light. The chamber

rolled and rocked and tossed Raven round for four days.

Finally, near death, Raven felt the storm stop.

Raven had broken an artery and killed

the whale-cow. Her inua never returned.

Raven was a prisoner in the beached whale.

As he wondered, “what should I do?” he heard men 575

talking, up on the back of the whale-cow

and presently a throng, come from a village.

They cut a hole in the top of the whale

and when they had all taken meat up to shore

Raven climbed up unnoticed out of the hole.

But once he was out he noticed he forgot

his fire sticks inside the whale’s belly.

So he dons the shape of a little dark man,

appears to the people and offers his help.

He helped them gut the whale until one found

his fire sticks in her belly. He tells them:

“That’s no good at all. My daughter once told me

that fire sticks in a whale’s belly means

many people will die. I suggest we run.”

So Raven takes off running and they follow,

but then he doubled back, so that he could have

the whole feast of the whale all to himself.

Having feasted to his greedy heart’s content

Raven flew south, out over the blue gulf, when

suddenly it began to grow very dark,

so he searched out a spot to land. An island

appeared below him, Haida Gwaii they call it.

Raven set down to see why it was so dark.

It was because a man, who lived on the banks

of a river in a house with his daughter, 600

had a box, with a box inside it, with a

smaller box in that box, down until the last

box was so small all it held was all the light

the universe contains. That’s why it was dark.

The man refused to let any light shine forth.

Raven thought at once, “I will steal the light.”

He had to find some way to get inside there.

The house’s walls were sealed; where were its doors?

The man and his daughter, he heard them come out

but found no entry. He heard her footsteps, soft,

crunching snow. Perhaps she’s beautiful, he thought.

This gave him an idea. When the girl

came to the river to gather some water

he changed himself into a hemlock needle

and floated down river just in time to get

caught in the scoop of the young woman’s basket.

Then he made her so thirsty that she drank him

down in a deep gulp. He nestled down inside

and found a soft, warm spot to transform himself

once more, into a little human being.

He slept there a long time, until the girl

realized some strange new thing was happening,

which she kept quiet, until one day a boy

emerged. Now the girl’s father took notice

of a new presence, he heard its angry cries, 625

its ravenlike calls, its burps and bubbly laughs.

He grew to love the child and played with him

to keep him happy. Meanwhile the child

crawled around the house in search of where the light

was hidden. He found the box and the father

harshly scolded him for touching his treasure.

So Raven knew where the light was. He pleaded,

he begged and whined, he crooned persuasively, “Please,

grampa, let me have just the outermost box.”

Grandpa just couldn’t say no. He took the box

off of the others and gave the boy his box.

It contented him for a while, but soon

he cried for the next box, he begged for the next,

cajoling boxes out of his grandfather

until a strange radiant glow filled the room

casting vague shapes and dim shadows on the walls.

The child instantly insisted to be

allowed to hold the light, for just a moment.

“No!” said the man. But, in time, he yielded.

He lifted the light, a beautiful white ball,

out of the last box and tossed it to the boy.

But as the ball traveled toward the boy, he changed

into a huge black shadow with outspread wings

and Raven caught the light in his waiting beak

and shot up through the smoke hole in the ceiling. 650

The dark world was transformed. It glowed with light

and brilliant color on the hills and valleys,

white foam flecked the scintillating ocean waves

and everywhere creatures stirred to vibrant life.

Light filled the Eagle’s sharp eyes for the first time

who spied the Raven flying and pursued him.

In fright and panic Raven dropped half the light

which fell and shattered to pieces on the rocks

then bounced back to heaven and scattered to shine

as the moon and stars. Then Eagle chased Raven

east beyond the world’s bounds until, at last,

he dropped the last piece of light which settled down

on a cloud rising over eastern hilltops.

The man, bewildered by the sudden dazzle

of light, at last looked up and saw his daughter

whom he had feared was ugly as a sea slug,

and saw that she was beautiful as the fronds

of a hemlock tree, lit by a spring sunrise.

His box of light was gone, but now he had eyes.

Tribes, pursuing game, have circled the North Pole.

Their lives are based on hunting and gathering,

unlike the planting cultures of the tropics.

But tribes will wander and their lives can alter.

Navajo and Apache of the Southwest

speak languages related to Alaskan 675

native languages, arguing migration

out of cold arctic hunting grounds to warmer

southern zones, of maize and adobe pueblos.

A thousand years ago or so, the Diné

left their first world in the north and headed

south, following the sun rising on their south

horizon, climbing, as they see it, up out

of the cold dark worlds, closer to the light.

A people’s myths are more than timeless tales

of gods and heroes, of tricksters and trespass.

Conflict and compromise, struggles to adapt

to changing nature and changing social times

crystallize in talk a people’s long hard walk.

When the Diné arrived in the Pueblo lands

they settled down, picked up maize agriculture,

and later, after the Spaniards came, they drove

herds and sheep flocks along the red rock mesas.

Their beautiful and complex mythic cycle

reflects their northern shamanic ancestry

suppressed by matrifocal social changes

and new communal priestly institutions

in counterpoint with new pastoral pursuits.

Their tales are a treasure in the world.

When Raven had escaped the Eagle’s clutches

he flew southwest, beyond great plains of bison, 700

over rocky mountains and down great basins.

Up to no good, and greedy as usual,

he corralled all the buffalo underground,

so that people went hungry though he feasted.

Coyote was wandering over hill and plain

hunting food for his hungry children, when he

noticed Raven’s camp showed signs of good eating

though nowhere could he see any animals.

Coyote changed himself into a puppy dog

and entered the camp to see what he could see.

When Raven saw the puppy come he wondered

if it might be a faithful watchdog for him,

so that he might safely leave his hoarding cave.

He waved a fire stick before the dog’s eyes

and it didn’t blink nor flinch. He passed the test.

He let the puppy stay. Coyote watched close

the way Raven opened and closed the cavern

that held the herds. One night Raven went flying,

leaving Coyote to guard his hidden cave.

Having heard the prayers that moved the big rock door

Coyote repeated them and it rolled open.

He went down to the pasture underground where

buffalo and deer and antelope and goats

were grazing on wide plains. Coyote took his bow

and shot four arrows, stirring herds to frenzy 725

and they ran up out of the underground cave

and scattered wide in fields and hills above.

Just as Coyote was running off with the herds

Raven returned. Coyote howled in laughter

and ever since, Raven, and his brother Crow,

have been forced to scavenge for mere entrails

left after people take their own fair portions.

Coyote ran off, dancing, playing his flute—

in which he’d hid and thereby weathered the flood—

along the plateaus fringing peopled pueblos;

where he roams a cloud of butterflies follows.

Down in a hollow he sees two beautiful

maidens threading their looms along the river,

aspens and cottonwoods thrive along its banks.

Coyote whistles, thrilling to see such a sight.

One is weaving red zigzags and black lightning;

the other threads yellow in and out with blue.

Around them grow rows of maize and squash and beans.

“Corn Maidens, Corn Maidens, your braids are so long,”

he whistles with his flute, then changes into

a white moth and flutters by where they’re weaving.

They see his wings shimmer a beautiful hue

and long to lace his shade into their fabric.

The moth flies off and the maidens, yet unstruck

by sunlight, chase him to capture his colors, 750

to crush and incorporate into their cloth.

But the moth leads them off, far away from home,

and, frenzied to follow, they are led astray.

Coyote-White-Moth leads them into the bushes

where they start throwing off their clothes to catch him

until they’ve stripped to their skins and stand naked

and, overcome by fatigue, they fall asleep.

White Moth turns back into Coyote and smokes

a pipe of sage and tobacco then whistles

a tune on his flute that changes the maidens

into white butterflies that fly to the sky

to join the clouds and pour as female rain,

the gentle spring rain that nourishes the corn.

All this happened, they say, at Riverward Knoll

where grow the weeds that can drive people crazy.

Clever Coyote knew how to use these weeds

and was always foraging for fresh supplies.

He also knew where to find defenseless sheep

and girls alone with them out on the buttes.

Down in Chaco Canyon hunting datura

he came upon a girl herding her flocks

with no one else in sight except her sheepdog.

Craving undoes him; he concocts his approach.

He hides his reed flute in the pack on his back

and takes out his pipe to smoke some tobacco 775

to waft skyward as he walks toward the girl.

She is weaving a wildflower garland

when she sees the stranger coming, looking sad.

He arrives and smiles, as to a daughter,

and begins, “Young lady, surely a daughter

of Changing Woman, as fair as a white shell,

I seem to have lost my herd, could you help me?”

“What can I do?” she asks, disarmed by his charm.

“Well, my goat herd got spooked last night and ran off

and I think they’ve gone down the canyon yonder.

Perhaps you could send your dog down there to see?

Meanwhile I would wait here and help with yours.”

She trusts and consents; she sees no harm in it.

So off trots the dog, faithful to her bidding,

and he sits down close by where she is sitting

and lets her take some tokes of what he’s smoking.

In time it takes effect and he leans over

and kisses her soft lips. At first she lets him,

but then she resists his stronger advances

and begins to call, but no one’s there to hear.

He puts his palm over her mouth then lifts her

over his shoulder and carries her away,

southward up the canyon. She watches in fear

behind them, her flocks forsaken to wander

shepherdless; her flowers lay lost on the ground. 800


(BOOK THREE: God Incarnate)


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