Everyday there are words I save for you, folded into narrow envelopes of thin paper.
If I could sleep without drowning I would sleep like a child, but sleep when I was a child was the sleep of the devil.
The old man called me a bleeding heart and I wish at the time I had the flower in mind because its breathtaking in its fortitude tempered by the most breathless beauty, a beauty my mother has always worshiped with her artist’s eye and which I wanted to see as she did. I wish I’d had the flower in mind instead of the insult he shot at me with all the barbs I knew dug deeper than I could retrieve.
Now I see the aching early spring blossoms and I understand strength. I understand the ingenuity of survival. I see an organ as strong as it is weak. I see the paradox of life there in its face, in its arcing reach. Usually pink with deeper pink blood dripping down on beds unmade, now there is the pale ghost of the emptying organs resonating against the grey spring.
Now I see that when someone you love sends you arrows it is often a perverse compliment they don’t know they’re sending, a secret mirror of approval opens wide into your skin like flint that goes soft in a nest of damp bones.
A bleeding heart is one that’s alive, still. A bleeding heart is one that feels, still. A bleeding heart is one that moves, still.
A bleeding heart is a thing more vibrant and triumphant than a numb one, even if it’s more likely to dent, tarnish, or break.
The finish line in life is death and how can anyone say it isn’t a sweet end? We assume that life for life’s sake is the greatest thing of all but who can be so sure that crossing that finish line isn’t the frosting, the epiphany, the greatest light? How can anyone be sure that settling back into the soil isn’t better than floating like free radicals against the burning sun and squinting into the moon?
There was a time I walked the sand at the shore in my bare city feet and washed myself away into the sea. I set myself adrift every time I met rock and ocean. A cathartic formal salute to what was coming. What comes still.
Does it matter that I’m American? Does it matter that I live in a painted wood shingle shelter? Does it matter that my father abandoned my birth country to fly free of me? Does it matter that I speak to the invisible and listen to the damned? Is it important that my son ripped my heart out when he was born and wears it on his sleeve? Is it relevant that I shrink into the shadows when no on is looking but turn the light on with a frayed cord when eyes turn to my skin and give a great show of aptitude for truth and nerves.
I dare the old man to meet me in his purgatory. I am master of the world he’s drifted into. I know what hell plagues the suppressed poet. I know what agonies of shame and fear plague him in his manly atelier where only soldiers stand with muskets and canons. There is no roof I haven’t climbed to find the words that ate at my heart.
I wore the black band for the old man. I promised him I would and it was language we both understood. I wish I’d seen him buried so I could have thrown dust in his grave, thrown some blood on his coffin so that he might find his way back through the flowers and the grasses.
I wish I could have stood next to him for the last story. I wish I could have stood next to him for the last words.
We met with Homer and wine. We met with sailor’s poems read at dusk.
I played “Piemontesino Bella” and watched his hard heart bleed against his will.
I sat down with “John” (my accordion) on the hot seat at Volpis where all the old men come to remember dead wives and the sweet figs of summer with their instruments of memory. I sat down and , for the old man, against threat of passing out, I played his song amongst the men he wished to claim as countrymen and I reminded him of who he was. My hands shook, my playing was bad enough to scare frail angels from our feast but I knew he nearly cried.
I knew he knew what it took for me to do it.
I knew he knew I played out of pure love for him. I played because it charmed me that his German and French soul really wished it was Italian and that at 80 some years of age he still missed the olive groves he bought in Italy on a dream and then had to sell because my bitter alcoholic grandmother demanded it. He was a hard rascal and his hand was made of the metal of retribution but I knew it was all about losing his soul and scribe to convention. He had his dream and he let it go and never took responsibility for buckling under pressure.
These faults of time, of character, and of judgment stay with us through sunset, through moonshine, through retrograde and crazy growth.
I played for the old that congratulated me for telling him to fuck off. I played for the old man who stuck a knife in my conscience and my head. I played for the old man who ran hot and cold like Victorian faucets. I played for the old man after he struck me through my love for my mother. He forced me to rise up as protectress and bite back. I forked his poison with my own.
Yet at dusk I still pulled out my accordion and played him like a delicate thinker, like a philosopher who knows we bend the rules infinitely and that truth is elastic. I played him into his own dreams, his memories. I drove him into his past, into memory where he and I are the same.
By the time he knew what I’d done it was too late. He heard the music. He heard the words. He drank to the sunset. I took back every racist conservative nasty expletive he’d ever uttered and turned it to gold on his tongue, turned it to love.
Of a sort.
Snared in a granddaughter’s web of backwards love and observance he couldn’t disown. The old man came down to the core of himself and though he never admitted it, the universe heard him anyway.
Words have a way of making themselves heard.
Everything was tuned to Piemontisina. Everything was turned to the olive grove and without the branch it would have had no meaning. I took the branches and spread them out around us in a circle of fire fit for warriors of our stripe. He would have been proud if he could have seen.
It all lives in my black bands. It’s where the mourning reckoned itself against his vibrant path that went far beyond my reach.
Tonight as I think of him my son has woken up to the stories from a shallow sleep and asked me to tell him, with eyes half closed, and only now do I understand the intensely far reaching nature of our tangled lives. I must tell my son how the Captain had beliefs that I would call evil and yet at the same time was a man of honor. My ten year old has barely registered the scope of his whole family and few have taken an interest in him as the dead have difficulty in doing and so he thinks his whole world is his mother and father and grandmother.
I don’t know if the old man loved me and I don’t care. I know he admired me and there can be no higher praise from a seasoned soldier. I am hard enough to have told him to go fuck himself and never insult my mother and brother again and at the same time I am a pathetic liberal bleeding heart who thinks all humans should have the same rights. Damn me.
I was never afraid of the Captain. He knew it. He played with that and pushed my boundaries. I played “Piemontesina” over grapes and grace. I told him to go to hell and still loved him and he found the boundaries of respect in my rejection of his crap.
If he could know Max he would feel he was living on. If he could know Max without knowing that Max isn’t a racist and though impatient with most people he has a developing ideal of equal human rights, he would love his great grandson. If he could see in Max the perfect fusion of warrior and poet he would see himself. The self he missed. The self he would have embraced if he was encouraged to see the egalitarian soldier as a hero. As a worthy entity.
In Max I see the old man. Warrior. Poet. Philosopher. Man.