This Piece of Land
…a hyperlinked piece of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice, with a nod to Voltaire in the best of all impossible worlds.
When she first found it, Lily knew little about the land. She knew it was host to a house—new construction, “solidly built”, according to the inspector’s report. From the moment she saw it, she knew: That place is mine. These were the lilies, and this was her field–here she could drift in measureless oceans.
Location, location, location. You could make a mockery of HGTV by calling this house in the Hood a dream home, for the only dreamlike thing about it was the way Lily succeeded in making it hers. The property’s fantastical qualities were not likely apparent or even of interest to anyone but Lily, her husband, and the two cats in the yard. Even what they later learned about it—from the plat of survey, the neighbors, and the ground beneath their feet—was unlikely to matter to anyone but them. The magic was an act of their minds, and it made them feel like the tops of their heads had been taken off. There was poetry in this place.
It was the summer she turned fifty. Fifty had seemed impossible to the 15-year old runaway selling sex for a ride home after she’d broken out of juvie sporting only pussy and an empty purse on a pair of three-inch faux patent leather platform shoes. At thirteen, Lily had already spent more time handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car than most people surrounding her now do in their lifetimes: she’d already risen to half a century’s worth of fresh hells in the morning. By nineteen she’d graduated high school and been accepted to a mid-sized liberal arts college nestled in the heart of what some still called “Indian Country.” Then came the decade living and working in Europe, the years traveling to Africa. And back in the US, the MA, the PhD, the non-profit serving at-risk youth. Years as a performing artist. From the Winnebago Home for Indians to the University of Chicago in fitty years of hard time. Realistically, the accomplishments did little more than render her unemployable on an American market with no place for impossible dreams, even less for impossible lives, unlikely stories and people who always bring their hearts along.
The payoff: as a tribal elder had once said, “Just remember, the children will never forget.” Hers was a life spent on the run. Always running from something in search of somewhere. Some “no-place-like-home”-there she might call her own: the rabbit-proof-fence run to nowhere. It was as if every kid’s life she touched with her work was supposed to heal some childhood spirit wound of her own. No sooner had she sutured one wound than pus began seeping from the seams of another. Whack-a-mole for the soul.
That was the summer of impossible blooms. Of seeds planted at the wrong time but in the right place and so taking root all the same. Of trees transplanted not once, but two, even three times into holes dug twice their root ball size. Of hibiscus blossoms twelve bold inches wide and cannas stretching in broadleaved Bordeaux eight feet into the air, topped by maraschino red flaglets flapping like silk skirts on the wind. It was the summer of fat-faced rose-flush after dawn and moon flowers staring wide-eyed into the old chaos of a night sky. An awareness of good fortune in precarious comfort seeped from Lily’s sweat into the soil, and it was there she finally found place. On that piece of land.
By the time summer had passed, Lily knew enough to keep slings at bay and arrows at arm’s length. She knew you had to clean up after a rain, then wash your hands and wait—fresh fish feces and triple action fungicide work wonders without wind. She knew why Sisyphus kept schlepping the stone, and that Tartarus seemed closer to heaven after you’d been to hell and back. She learned to strive and to seek, and yes, at times to yield: soil is more easily moved than heaven or earth. It settles more quickly than men, and comes off more cleanly than blood from your hands. These were good things to know, and maybe if Lily had known from the start, she’d have spared herself decades spent on a no-justice-no-peace-campaign against the world, digging for god—little acre by little acre—only to come out ass deep in debt with three lifetimes of stories to tell.
That was the summer Lily learned what her friend Felicity meant when she said there is a sort of justice in this place. Dig deeply enough in the quest for peace and justice will tumble like backfill crumbling from your hands. It won’t come raining down, nor marching in–triumphant, aflush with pomp and aplomb–but will seem no less poetic for that. It will settle, slowly, creeping with the tantalizing vagueness of groundcover that you don’t notice until your ankle is gripped by it and you nearly trip in its tether.
Over the years, Lily’s propensity for embellishment diminished, only to eventually signify little and qualify less. She caught herself in the act of finding what would suffice. She would work this piece of land not by any means necessary, but by every means necessary—because there was no sense in grasping for the first good-natured wench to come strolling along. She learned that it was harder to discern the needed from the needy than it was to indiscriminately wield whatever instrument may be at hand: Oh, all of them, Katie! Necessity has always mothered more invention than caprice. It was a matter of finding what would suffice and if none of it would, surely all of it would never be enough either, so you may as well keep looking for the place that is your own. Lily knew now that war would not suffice, nor hunger, nor insult upon injury slung like fish dung in your face until you finally retreated, recalcitrant, to the garden.
This supreme fiction had been in the making long before Lily was born. The neighbors tell of a foundation’s bones buried deep in the ground, of a Puerto Rican guy who sold fruits and vegetables from the orchard he’d planted there—the pear tree’s rare silver and the way it was struck down by lightning legendary now, even in the solid symmetrical shadow of the crazy-cat lady’s Crimson King maple, planted on the day of her birth eighty years ago. There was much to be said for having spent a lifetime waking to the sight of the same tree in the morning, but why bother lamenting the loss of what’s impossible to recover?
From the plat of survey she learned that the property was situated on the Indian Boundary Line. That was the border established by the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis, which was actually a series of treaties signed by the people of the Three Council Fires. Ojibwa, Potawotami, Odawa. Her people. Her place. Her land. Ceded to the United States government. Relinquished. In exchange for $1,000 in merchandise, to be disbursed annually over twelve years.
The pieces began falling into place. The street names—Escanaba, Marquette, Manistee, Muskegon—all places her grandmother and the grandmothers before her had lived and been buried. Tribal lore, with its tales of forced migration further west from Mackinac each time the white settlers burned down their villages. Until the family settled in Garden. And finally, this one line from the Internets: “Chief Alexander Robinson, one of the signers of the Treaty of St. Louis of 1816 … son of an Ottawa mother and a Scottish father…born in Mackinac, Michigan.
It was the same old story. Her story. A story of land grabs, of Indian women married to immigrant men.
Stories of relinquishment. Cecession: cede and recede. Sign and resign.
Stories about place and displacement.
Of pussies and purse strings.
Lily was no newcomer to this place, only to the boundaries now circumscribing this piece of land. Dwelling here in the evening air of the place, the story’s lines land like whispers on the wings of a praying mantis settling in for the night in her yard. It is a story she’d been writing for fifty years, but only learned to read that summer in the garden. The summer of her fiftieth year. Lily knows now how much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, and how much does not.
She knows now there’s no direct line to Lima or Lisbon from that piece of land, but she now knows, too, that about four feet below the soil line, the freshwater smell of lake water rises to remind you that god is nearer the surface than gold in this best of all impossible worlds.