1 Not the stopped trains, not the ants streaming out to read the invisible, not the way the city struggled to restore coverage so the camera could zoom the crack from chimney to base, not the marriage of fire and water as the main and the line crumpled together with a sudden understanding, not the clock face that grinned and went numb at 4:31, not the jolt of his body thrashing up out of sleep as the flesh of buildings fell from architecture of bone, no, the wooden chest is as close as I ever get to what happened. First a lunging, layers and layers of thunder. And yes, the swell of a wave, water’s surge, a girl in a wooden chest on the rolling seas, waves not capped or foaming, chest drifting. Then, the dead air of the house when it stops humming its secret mantras and we’re the only ones left with our little scalloped breaths. I’ve broken free, I whispered to the dead air. 2 Mother described that chest many times, each with a suave dangerous stranger, pocket full of sweetmeats, out there trolling in concentric curves, all the strangers she ever spoke of. They all have a trunk large enough to wedge in a child’s body. 3 She predicted our colors and postures in those chests, a phrase like cut to ribbons in the mind’s eye of our dime store where spools of grosgrain with looped edges all pulled down wildly off their spindles and criss-crossed, wound about the children of the May cramped in their trunks. After the burning and cuttings, we might look like motley, like bright rags, like the stamps of foreign lands pasted one across the other in a hodge-podge of destinations. And the cigarettes would be welcome compared to other things. Oh, they lit us up in a way we could understand as she gestured in the air and mimed stubbing them out on child’s flesh. And then what, one of us would breathe. They lock the chests, she’d hiss, turning an imaginary key, and throw them in the LA River. 4 Our mother could cleave to a tenet; our mother could hold a faith. For years we’d crane our necks, press our faces to the window glass, peering down flood channels where a trunk might snag on a mudbar against a stand of rushes. Never enough flow to carry them out, but they must have wanted to reach the sea by San Pedro where the longest thoroughfares end in cliffs and refineries, and children can be lifted and floated west. Never returned. She made that clear. But eased somehow and carried, and I wanted that too. 5 Is there something to the stories massing in the atmosphere and the shape of a life? The way each shock wave lifted the barge of our marriage bed and gliding down into the trough, I knew I would have to leave him. The video only confirmed it; rebar orphaned from its cinderblock, skeletons left standing while fallen flesh invented itself inside the disaster. By the first night fever clouds had formed over the valley sifting musk on all our heads. It’s ravishing, that sense that fate is upon us. 6 What else could it be but the workings of desire when, after the fire turns the hills to ash and the sky passes through its whiskey colors, the rains come, rushing down through culverts faster than a man can run? St. Francis Dam only needed a small quake—concrete is supple like skin, it suppurates, bubbles and bursts. Something slips inside you, nose down, the chest slides a watery slope just as though you are that child and free because you finally reach the sea.
Marsha de la O, “NorthridgeQuake” from Antidote for Night. Published by BOA Editions. Copyright © 2015 by Marsha de la O. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc..
Photo of the poet by Alexis Rhone Fancher.