Dirtfor Virginia Grise, for Rafa Esparza


i. San Antonio, Texas


Last fall, I watched a man dig a hole. He did this a day before he buried himself. The hole was a hole. Dug in the ground.   His hands and his back and both of his legs, and his heart, of course, which was a brown heart, which tells everything.

Using a spade, using the thrust of deltoids and scapulas, muscles in the thick mass of legs, too.

The hole was silent unless it was touched.

There was a pecan and wind and the river not so far, the sky grey and blue and clad in clouds. Leaves that had fallen crushed under his feet, under the spade’s quick thrust. The man worked the spade with an ardor but also with a tenderness, because the earth wasn’t something just to remove, to displace, to toss out, because this man, I believe, has held earth inside him before. Held it. Which is different from shoveling out a cavity in the ground or loading it into wheelbarrows, moving its mass around.

It had rained recently, that week. This meant mud. And mud, as you know, makes the ground difficult to work. Whole clumps clung to the spade’s rusted belly, not wanting to give itself up, not wanting to be pulled out.

I watched the man dig. Purposefully, his palms putting themselves out for the hole, he entered the earth, but only after asking, only after whispering what it was he was about to do and for what. I believe the earth understood. I say this because for hours, working my own hole, gathering logs and ramas, twigs and stones, I had learned from him the need to ask the earth before entering it.

Like this, I dug and he dug and each of us turned back from time to time to watch the woman we were with walk around the overgrown lot, pacing and whispering and believing in something I couldn’t yet see. It is a beautiful thing to trust someone you love when she tells you: We are going to do this, and I want you to belong like I belong like he belongs like we.

When he was done, after many hours, the hole sat with its eyes open, waiting. If the earth can anticipate what we will do, then, this was it.

The man stood by his hole.

The hole stood a few yards from the river.

Behind him a woman built a nest. Behind him, I hung a lazo.

The woman said we would bury a cow’s head.

There was a storm, too. Coming. Churning, driving toward us. Remnants from a huracán. From Mexico.

The sky darkened with more clouds.



ii. Machete


The moon had taken back the machete.

To say this I have to tell you about the woman. I can’t tell about the woman unless I tell you about the kindness, and if I tell you about the kindness, I have to tell you about the sadness. But kindness and machetes don’t typically go together, do they? Not like sadness and kindness, however, which often stand together, side by side, versus suffering, versus cruelty and stones. As for sadness and machetes, that is another story.

When the man first climbed into the hole, people swarmed and took out their phones. A speckling of light. The sound of tiny, close-by stars screaming their names. Whose names? Which stars? That’s for you to decide.

When the police came and tried to engage the man, who by this time had covered himself in the hole, the woman came from where she was tending her own hole, a hole made for a cow’s head, and she brought the machete. It was already in her hand.

The cops made their jokes. One asked, is this a prank? One leaned in, his big body imposing itself over the brown man inside the earth, and tried to get the man’s attention. Another one summoned over his friend.

Is this real? Is this part of the show? Why would he do that? one of the cops asked.

The woman said the man in the hole was telling a story. She stood there with the cops, holding her machete, but no one was afraid.

We all stared at the man in the hole. If I tried very hard, I could hear him breathing. For a good grip of minutes I sat by the hole, near the assemblage of branches and mud. But maybe I am making this part up. For a long while, I sat very near the hole’s lip like maybe I was making certain he was alright, like maybe I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone. I don’t think anyone ever deserves to feel alone in a hole. When I consider it now, I have no proof to confirm I could hear his lungs. But I’d like to believe he knew I was there, that I could hear the air running through his body like a hand through his hair.

The sky was very dark, then.

The brown woman holding a machete in her hand and the cops. She helped them understand. The cops came with their questions, but after listening to the woman, they left the man alone in his hole covered by ramas, covered by bit-clumps of soil and leaves.

After awhile, I had to go home.

But all night the woman sat by the hole.

All night she sat by the brown man in the hole.

By this time, she’d placed the coals and the hot logs and the bricks and the metal screen and the cow’s head into the ground.

When I think of it now, I want to call it more than a vigil.

When I think of it now, I call it cariño.

Something inside me wants to remember all the mujeres who sat by men’s bedsides in the 80s and 90s and across Time.

Something inside me wants to say you can hold a machete next to some cops as long as they are listening to you.



iii. Rope


But this wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed the man put himself in something. Another time he’d dug a hole on a hill over LA, and putting his head in some rope, under the sun under the trees under clouds and inside the city, surrounded by white orbs made of air, he sang a silence only the earth really knows how to hear.



iv. A Grasshopper and a Star


When we left the hole alone that night, I wondered what happened inside it. Insects and crumbling, resettling—the expected arrangements of gravity and water and soil clumps, emptiness and air.

I suppose anything can be left alone. Of course, they exist without us, these places we carve and then leave, and perhaps these places are better off sans human bodies and footprints, wishes and hands, perhaps they are not. I am not one to know anymore than I wish to, which is a way of covering my eyes. But, about the movement of the earth, of the sounds it makes—even shutting the eyes doesn’t hush that knowing.

I read once in high school, before leaving my small Texas town, before I had learned how to miss the saltwater and the sun, the cotton fields and the mesquite, before I had learned to miss the place I am from, in my high school library one afternoon I read that the earth makes a sound when it spins, and that once, a long time ago, some people believed they could hear it. Not with instrumentation or high technology but with only the body—the ears and the mouth and the hands and the flesh that makes up the heart, all of the legs and the outer portions of the thumbs, the forearms and the caps of the shoulders—to hear the impossible only using things God has given us.

With my dogs that next morning, after the man put himself in the hole he dug, I sat in my courtyard and stared at the places in the yard where I’d dug. A lavender tree, a spot where once, years ago, a papaya had grown—underneath each tree, we’d placed a dog who had died. One was only a pup. One was newborn. Chapulin. Citlali. A grasshopper and a star, the names we gave both.

As for the older pup’s loss, I feel a sadness hardening in my throat when I consider her, still, now, all these years after the fact. She did not have to die, not then, I believe, am convinced. So I stare at the day moon, which is beautiful, if you ask me. I wonder if a grasshopper might have been strong enough to leap into the moon. But once it got there, perhaps there was no way to get back.

The moon has five hundred brothers and sisters, and you are one of them, I thought, years ago, holding the newborn pup’s small black body and placing it back into the earth.

I’d like to believe the earth is not silent. I’d like to believe there is something more than a voice inside the earth, emerging. When I put my hands into the earth, I often feel I am something more than just a man on that day putting his seed into the ground or a tree or the body of a small dead pup. But what am I? But what am I doing if not enacting what my people and yours, ours, have done since the beginning?

And thinking of these large lives and the little ones, I sat in an old metal chair in the courtyard, surrounded by ginger and Mexican Birds of Paradise and the dwarf pomegranate, all the palms, and I held their father, who by this time, had grown very old, fifteen and blind and able to use only three of his legs but full of cariño and therefore full of life.

Sometimes, I catch him staring off into the spots where his children are buried. I don’t know this for sure. There is no way I can prove it. It’s the perch of his ears that I’m reading, the attention he fixes upon the spot where the papaya once grew, the area the Texas Lavender still gives its purplish blooms and its wild scent.

One day, you will die, I thought, holding him, rubbing my hands along his neck, behind his upturned ears.

But perhaps he, too, was looking at me, smelling my hands, thinking the same thing.


v. Owl Nests


“We could walk around the city with owl nests strapped behind our backs,” said the woman.

For a good minute, I thought I could do this. I thought I could gather things we didn’t want and place them inside a nestling of things other people didn’t want. Water hoses, old clothes, shirts I no longer wear, sabanas from an old bed from my youth, which I keep, though I don’t really know why. Old drafts that never became poems, some rope, and uprooted weeds from my yard, which yellow in the sun, which turn black, in time, as dust. An electrical cord for woven parts, stuffing from a dog toy, which belonged to my little dog whom I loved so much and now can’t throw away after she died, palm fronds and shoelaces, old obsolete maps, and ties.

In my head, the list amassed to something more like a litany, maybe a long-form poem. Of all the things that come to my head, it’s these that I list—water hoses and extensions cords and bed sheets—but what else is there I carry with my back?

I’m afraid of considering the things others don’t want.

I thought, in fact, of tearing poems from a book I wrote, the most heartbroken ones, because if I learned anything about the hole I dug in the ground it was that I am still trying to do something with the mud.

In my mind, the owl nests would float. They would elude gravity, not stomach the earth, not be mired by its muds.

Attached to my back, the nest I carried would stare up at heaven, its whole mouth open for God. The nest would stare back at the screams of five hundred stars. It would ask them, Where is your mother? And who is your father? And don’t you know I love the moon who is your sister, too?

People passing us by might pause. They might gawk or simply stare. Or take out their phones to snap shots of the weirdness of brown people navigating pain on the streets with giant owl nests attached to our backs.

But I am not as afraid of being made fun of as I am of being unable to carry my own pain.

From time to time I would need to pause. My body is not as powerful as I’d like the world to believe it to be. Exhaust is the reeling of my body when it approaches the dim echo of each muscle’s claim that it, too, has a hole it needs filled.

I might ask the woman: Would you like some water? How are you doing?   The man who dug the hole in which he’d bury himself would carry a nestling on his back, too.

For some reason I believe he could walk the deserts of the earth with this nest, with this back, with his whole body inside the earth, and I listen, then, not because I want to know his secret, how he does it, but because I want to ensure he makes it.

The truth is I can’t fathom how very heavy my owl nest would be. The mass of it could shatter my spine or reinjure, at the least, the strained quadriceps muscle in my right leg, which already, tender, made it difficult to dig. But I would make do, because making do is a task I can manage, having watched my grandmothers and my mother do so all of our lives.

But what if we’re accustomed to it? To making do with what we find, to keep living amid unwantedness—these bundles?

Would my back be strong enough? My legs?

Could I hunch over and walk and keep balanced all at once?

What if I broke into tears? What if my body said, No more. Fuck you. Fuck no.

If this was the case, then I’d have to tell you the whole story, which means I’d have to relive my moments of loss, which means I’d lay myself upon the hole, listen the earth groan, tell myself, this isn’t the way it is going to end. There is so much more the world has to say.


vi. Cow’s Head


We were cooking a cow’s head in the earth after all. The way it was done before us. The way it will be done after we leave our lives and become earth for someone else, eons from now, to one day remove from a hole.

But the hurricane, of course. But the rains and the wind and the hole in the earth where the woman placed her cow’s head, where she built fire and listened to it sing, where others sat with her through the night, tending the flame, that song, until morning.

But the head did not cook.

We dug it out and we said, we will place it inside an oven. We will not let this feast waste.



vii. Loss and Shine


I’m a little embarrassed to say this. I don’t like to admit the privacies of loving someone who doesn’t understand. I don’t believe anyone who loves us has to understand every place in our bodies, not everything. No one can, I think. I could be wrong. Perhaps I just haven’t been loved so profoundly. That doesn’t terrify me. What terrifies me more is no longer being able to give love. That’s the real devil dancing around my heart’s little chest-bone.

When we were done with the cabeza, the meat stripped off the face bone, which wasn’t so much of a task, it appeared, since so much of the carne slipped off as I watched the women peel back the face’s meat. We decided to give the skull to a friend, a poet for whom the cow’s head would mean Love.

A great many things can mean Love.

Once the meat had been taken off the bone, we ate. Wrapped in tortillas de maize with salsa verde or de la roja and icy Big Red, even the storm would not dull the appetites of brown people for joy, for talk, for making do with what we had. At some point in time, I thought, at that table, sitting very near my Love for whom eating cow’s head was not something he’d ever believed he’d do, I figured someone at some point in history had been hungry enough to offer up the cow’s head to the mouth. The same could be said about so many other meals—tripas and belly soup, or menudo, for instance.

When they left, my lover told me, “The house stinks.”

For the next two hours, he proceeded, then, to wipe down every surface of the house, to spread cleanser across the floors and rub off the scent of cabeza.

In the restroom I sat with my voice. In the restroom I held my own hands and hoped my friends had not forgotten something and returned, only to find my lover frantically sanitizing our house.

No, at that moment, the house did not feel mine, at all.

At that moment, I couldn’t understand his disgust with what I am and where I come from and how his whiteness does not mean my brownness is unclean.

There is no metaphor for how I might reinterpret this cleaning. I tried. But there is no figurative explanation for wanting to do away with brownness. It is just as it is: an attempt at removing, sterilizing. Even if there is love. Even if there is safety for someone. A kind of pain runs through me when I consider the implications, how all of my life, loving him will mean there will be grating between his whiteness and my brownness, a grating that means we will have to have uncomfortable and difficult talks about fear and messiness and joy and culture and privilege and superiority and this will feel as if I am alone, or that he is, though we are not, though others before us and right now, too, and tomorrow, will be engaged in the very acts of unlearning power, of sharing pain, of making trouble where there is assumption and silence and long-held beliefs about rightness and the world as we, ourselves, see it.

None of these things are done in the name of malice, I believe. But ignorance need not carry malice in its hands to hurt. Ignorance need simply not know. Ignorance need only stutter over understanding or shout louder than empathy or not listen at all.

A day will come maybe when we might not need to address these frictions any longer. Often, I have the urge to tell my lover everything about my life, thinking this deluge of poverty and Chicanidad might frame why I am unnerved so often, why I would rather, nearly always, play it safe than be sorry, why I fear losing the little and the lot that I have earned.

There, in this difficulty, is one of the beauties of America.

There, in my house, is the smell of cabeza, which is another one of America’s beauties. That a junta of brown artists and thinkers and writers and builders can celebrate joy by digging holes and making cow head and resolving the dilemma of an uncooked cabeza inside, together, out of love, sharing.

Because understanding is not a hole one might dig to reach some better place. Not a catapult to one destination of forgiveness and lauding joy, not a spade or a hurricane or the bones left behind, after the meal has been culled, after the heat, after the chewing and shitting and moving on—well, maybe, maybe, understanding is a little bit like that last part.

Photo by Madsfoto.dk used under CC.