holds an MFA in poetry from Pacific Lutheran University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her book publications include Many Parishes and Three Days with the Long Moon (poetry), and the novels, Union Square and Miraculous Medal (2020). She was a graduate assistant editor for Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, taught creative writing at UNL and Creighton University, and recently retired from the U of Nebraska system. She lives in Omaha, where she is currently working on a third novel and a new collection of poetry.
A Nun Walks Around a Hanging Terrace in El Guano
for Peggy Shumaker, after Pablo Neruda
It so happens that when I came here I thought I was making a great donation to the lovely poor of Hispaniola, because the poor, you see, if they are going to be always with you, might as well be beautiful in spirit and love everything you give them, everything about you, even the fat on your legs, but by the time I got to the hanging terraces, walking with my little hostess sister Marianne, it so happens that I had turned paper-thin and had ripened to the color of milk chocolate (but it so happens that I was still fatter than all of them) and my hair had started to turn rickety green-yellow on top of the brown, the same color as all the five-year-old beach-ball-bellied kids,
and it so happens that it was noon, and I wanted to take a walk, and Marianne was sent to go with me, we were given an umbrella, our feet tumbled on the rivuleted paths that passed for roads, the sun so hot even the dragonflies stayed down, and the pillagers, and all I could think was how much I hated to eat there, and how magical it was to be turning into milk chocolate vellum, how the lluca root was inedible, and the boiled platano even worse, how I wished the family would stop giving me their only egg, each morning floating in peanut oil and red onions, how courtesy kept me from pushing it away or even throwing it at them, and how I wanted to hurt someone when the cousins visited and pulled little Adolfito over, especially the man who stretched out the elastic band of his little shorts, and leered to me, “Macho!” and sometimes reached in and pinched the little penis, and how Adolfito stared at me while they held him in their arms.
It so happens that I often hate being poor, a hatred that surprised me when we finally arrived at those hanging terraces. I try to ask Marianne who lives here, but either she doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to, she shrugs and starts kicking a stone around on the road, as I look up, and see a patio, with patio furniture lazing in the shade. A man in a white shirt holding an iced drink comes to the door. He wears a watch. He smiles, and I return the smile, he is the first thing I have not hated all day. He speaks, I am sure he is inviting us to come up and rest, but Marianne says no and pulls me around to go home, and it so happens when I arrive back that I’ve gotten heat stroke and the mamá puts me to bed, Adolfito comes into the room and jumps and screams on the other bed, until I cry out, “Fito, por favor!” and Mamá shoos him away and brings me a tisane, and I cry in her lap, my head shuddering and blasting, yearning for the patio above the hanging terraces.
And it so happens that on the last day, Marianne and I stood out on the patio and kicked our legs high up in the air, as if we were both twelve, and she took me aside to the patio to teach me tatting, “Así, así,” and I acted as if I would be there always and that the publico was not coming and yet it came before I said goodbye to them all, but, still, I felt so satisfied when I climbed in on top of the half-dozen others going into the city, and I said “Lo siento por eso,” and the driver replied to his friends, “Ella habla el Espanol” and it so happens that they all murmured proudly about me, so I felt even my green hair was fluent, as fluent as the green skirt that I would wear again back at the convent, and it so happens I remembered the pesos I had tucked inside my shoes and had pushed far under the bed of the mamá, and it so happens, it so happens that I was not a Samaritan or a martyr or a missionary of any kind or even a friend, but only a child, a child of North America, staring from the publico window down the ravines, happy to be rumbling for the last time down past the delicious hanging terraces.