Catherynne M. Valente
The Seven Devils of Central California
I. The Devil of Diverted Rivers
Put out your tongue:
I taste of salt. Salt and sage
dry am I, dry as delving.
My fingers come up
through the dead sacrament-dirt;
my spine humps along the San Joaquin—
remember me here, where water was
before Los Angeles scowled through
hills blasted black
by the electric hairs of my forearms.
Pull the skin from my back and there is gold there,
a second skeleton,
carapace smeared to glitter in the skull-white sun.
There is a girl sitting there
between the nugget-vertebrae
who came all the way from Boston
when her daddy hollered Archimedes' old refrain—
Eureka, baby, eureka, little lamb,
I'll have you a golden horse
and a golden brother
and golden ribbons for your golden hair,
just pack up your mama and come on over Colorado,
not so far, not so.
They flooded out her daddy's valley
when she was seventeen,
rooting potatoes out of the ground,
brushing beetles from her apron,
and the wind sounded like an old Boston train.
I am waiting for you to stop in your thrum,
for you to pause and look towards Nevada:
I am holding back the waters
with the blue muscles of my calves,
waiting for you.
All the way down to the sea,
one of these mornings bright as windows,
I'll come running like a girl
chasing golden apples.
I deny you, says the city below.
I deny you, says the dry riverbed, full of bones.
I deny you, say the mute, fed fields far off from the sea.
II. The Devil of Imported Brides
Look here: my fingernails show through
the lace and dried orange blossoms of a dress
I never wore.
You can see them up on the ridgeline like a fence
severed by earthquake:
yellow and ridged, screw-spiraled, broken,
brown moons muddy and dim.
The roots of the Sierras are blue and white:
the colors of stamped letters, posted,
flapping over the desert like rag-winged vultures,
gluey nose pointed east. All around the peaks
the clack of telegraphs echo
Would like a blonde, but not particular.
Must be Norwegian or Swede, no Germans.
Intact Irish wanted, must cook better than the ranch-hands.
Don't care if she's ugly enough to scare the chickens
out of their feathers, but if she ain't brood-ready,
she goes right back to Connecticut
or the second circle of hell
or wherever it is
spit her out.
Look here: my horns spike up sulfurous through
a veil like mist on the fence-posts. My tail rips the lace;
thumps black on the floor of an empty silver mine.
Never was a canary in the dark
with a yellow like my eyes. Sitting
in the cat-slit pupil with her bill of sale
stuffed in her mouth—
Why, hullo, Molly! Doesn't your hair look nice!
If you glisten it up enough
he'll be sure to love you real and true,
not for the silver nuggets you pull out of the rock
like balls from the Christmas box,
not for the crease-eyed boys he pulls from you
like silver nuggets, but for the mole on your little calf,
and the last lingering tilt to your voice,
that remembers Galway.
It was the seventh babe killed her,
and I sat up in her bloody bed,
orange blossoms dead on the pillow,
the clacking of brass-knockered codes
so loud in my ears
I flew down to the mine,
deeper than delving,
just for silence.
It is cold down here,
what silver is left
gnarls and jangles.
I put my hands up through the mountains
like old gloves with their fingers torn,
I deny you, says the father of seven, bundled against the stove.
I deny you, says the silver, hanging in the earth like a great chandelier.
I deny you, say the mountain towns, minding their own.
III. The Devil of Fruit Pickers
Strawberries and nickels
and the sun high as God's hat.
My old callused feet stamp down
the green vines and leaves of Fresno,
my throat of bone whistling still
My wings are tangled in grapevine
pearwood and raw almonds,
green skin prickles my shoulder blades,
lime-flesh and rice-reeds,
soybean pods and oh,
the dead-leaved corn. I can hardly fly
But I burrow, and stamp,
and how the radishes go up in my path.
Between the wings rides Maria,
born in Guadalajara with strong flat feet,
fishy little mouth scooped clean
by her father with cheeks like St. Stephen.
This was before the war, of course.
Her black hair flies coarse as broom-bramble,
bags of oranges belted at her waist,
singing while I dance, riding me like her own
She saved her nickels, and picked her berries,
bent over in the fields till her back was bowed
into the shape of an apple-sack,
and nothing in her but white seeds and sunburn.
She curled up into me,
dry as an old peapod,
and how we ride now,
biding our time,
over the dust and cows,
over all her nickels in a neat bank-row.
Watch our furrows, how we draw them,
careful as surveyors,
careful as corn-rows.
I deny you, say the strawberries, tucked tight into green.
I deny you, say the irrigation ditches, glimmering gold.
I deny you, say the nickels, spent into air.
IV. The Devil of Gold Flake
My hair runs underneath the rivers,
gold peeling from my scalp. I remember
the taste of a thousand rusted pans
pulling out ore like fingernails at the quick.
I lie everywhere;
I point at the sea.
All along my torso are broken mines,
like buttons on a dress. The state built
a highway through them,
a grey rod to straighten my back. The driller-shacks
shudder dusty and brown,
slung with wind-axes and bone-bowls:
my stomach dreams of the ghosts of gold.
They suck at my skin,
hoping for a last gurgle of metal,
tipping in for the final bracelet and brick—
there must be something left in me,
there must be something—why do I not give it to them,
selfish creature, wretched mossy beast?
Underneath the deepest drill
hunches Annabella, the miner's wife,
who sifted more gold
than her coarse-coated man,
so deft and delicate were her fingers
round that old, beaten pan. He brought her
from St. Louis, already pregnant—and manners
make no comment there—already heavy with gold.
She smelled of the Mississippi
and steam-fat oatmeal cakes,
even after the oxen died, and with blood in her hair,
she crossed half of Wyoming on foot.
But the boulders loved her,
watched her every day from a high blue perch.
They wriggled at her, her yellow dress
gone brown with creek-silt, her bustle
and wire hoops collapsed on the grass.
While she knelt with gold in her knuckles,
they snapped to attention,
slid laughing to the creek-bed—she doesn't blame
the poor things, even now.
Her babies left cabbages and peppermints
at the creek for years after.
I felt the highway roll smooth and hot
over my ox-drenched head,
and the only gold I allowed to ooze up from my scalp
were the broken dashes marking lanes
like borders on an old map
showing a river like a great hand flattening the page.
But I confess:
I am an old wretched beast, and my tail,
waiting in the spangled dust,
is made of quartz-shot boulders
clapped in moss.
I deny you, say the desiccated lodes.
I deny you, say our great-grandchildren, with such clean hands.
I deny you, says the highway, blithe and black.
V. The Devil of Mine Canaries
Watch the sun peek out over the Siskiyous
with their lavish snow like ladies' bonnets—
see my feathers, how bright, how brave!
I open my wings over the thin green
boyish arms of the Russian River,
yellow as sulphur, yellow as gas,
wide as any Italian angel.
What is a devil
but death and wind?
I come golden as a mineshaft,
and how black, how ever black,
come my eyes!
Who remembers where they got the songbirds?
Bought from Mexico, from Baja with shores
like sighs? They got the cages
out of their wives' bustles, wrangled
to hand and wing. Pretty bird, pretty bird!
Don't be afraid of the dark.
Yella-girl loved her miner, thought
her black demon,
white eyes showing clam-shy through the dust,
was the greatest raven born since Eden.
She pecked corn-meal from his palm,
stood guard at his bedknob,
little golden sentinel. She'd draw the gold
for him, she thought, like to like.
For birds, the angry gases
have a strange color:
pink, almost pretty (Pretty bird, pretty bird!)
curling up from the dark like beckoning.
Yella-girl seized up in mid-stroke,
falling onto a carpet of jaundiced feathers
half a leg deep. She fell thinking
of her miner, of corn in his black hand,
and I stood up
out of the canary-grave,
body crawling with pretty, pretty birds,
beaks turned out
I deny you, says the buried mine, long stopped up.
I deny you, say the crows, too big to tame.
I deny you, says the miner, a new bird swinging at his side like a lunchbox.
VI. The Devil of Acorn Mash
I am hard to see.
You will have to look carefully.
at your well-shod feet
to see the shallows in the rock,
where she and her son,
light beating their black hair like blankets,
worked rough-husked black oak acorns
into mash and meal,
bread and pancakes.
Like horse-hooves driven into
the granite, the hollows still breathe.
These are my footprints.
I have already passed this way
I deny you, says the forest, full again.
I deny you, say endless feet.
I deny you, says the treeless plain, flat and brown.
VII. The Devil of the Railroad
If I just try, I can taste bitter tang
of the golden tie bent over my toe
somewhere in Kansas,
like the memory of licking clean a copper plate.
But here at my head,
between the Santa Lucias and two crescent bays,
ribboned and raw-boned, bonneted in iron,
coal-shod and steam-breathed, I taste
corn-freight and cattle, palettes of tomatoes
and stainless steel screwdrivers, and there, behind my tongue,
the phosphorescent traces
of silver forks and weak tea shaking on linen,
burning the air where they no longer
drink themselves down to calm nerves like baling wire,
to spear Pacific salmon before the conductor ever sighted blue.
Out of the slat-cars come thousands of horns,
honest black and brown,
bull-thick, tossing in the heat.
In the slick, wet turn of my silver-steel against the rail
Li-Qin sings a little song, full of round golden vowels.
She wore gray shapeless things, hammering ties,
taking her tooth-shattering turn at the drill,
laying rail with bloody, sun-smashed hands
while the pin against wood sounded her name over and over
like a command to attention:
Li-Qin, Li-Qin, Li-Qin!
She had tea from thrice-used bags
and a half bowl of rice at the end of the day,
one grain of sugar dissolving in her cup
With her hair bound back she plied the drill
until it slipped like splashed water,
hammered into her heart,
laying track for the train to bellow through her,
blood red as cinnabar on the wooden stays.
There is a car swinging back and forth
between a shipment of umbrellas to San Francisco
and swordfish packed in ice for Santa Barbara.
I have such a tail, you know, enough to bring them all
from the mountains and the sea.
With silver forks and weak tea
they sit at a long table with a cloth of cobwebs,
clinking their cups as I rattle them through the desert:
a Boston goblin with drowned lips violet,
a bridal imp, her veil torn and burning,
a gnomish grandmother, sucking tea through slices of strawberries,
an old, wretched, bustleless beast, smug as a river,
a yellow bird, brimstone-wings folded around
a little urchin in deerskin, her hands full of acorns,
and a demon in gray with a huge flayed heart
hanging in her breast like a pendant.
I brought them on my tail,
my endless black tail,
like a dragon out of books older than any of us,
I brought them like freight,
and we are coming to dance on the shore
by the great golden bridge,
we are coming to remember ourselves
to the tide,
to sing at the moon until it cracks,
to stamp our hooves under so many crinoline dresses,
to stamp our hooves under so many rags,
to stamp our hooves on the earth like pickaxes,
and sunder California along every wrinkle,
send her gleaming
into the sea.
I deny you, shudders the sky, whole and inviolate.
I deny you, whispers the unwilling sea.
I deny you, trembles the fault line.
The sun dips deep into salt and foam,
and a long engine-whistle
breaks the blue
into seven pieces.
I was a room full of myself;
Curved walls wound round
with my own hair,
coarse and brown as homespun rope.
It smelled of nothing but me,
a dust-filthy, half-green scent
like potato sprouts dried and hung.
I remember marking out the time on the length of my braid:
little scraps of ribbon: red for the damp days,
green for the first of each month, blue for the new year.
I remember shivering on a little silver footstool,
milkteeth chattering, listening to my hair grow.
It sounded like crickets whispering.
Then: footsteps each night
when my hair was still short,
dependable as winter,
a palsied hand clutching a cup
of licorice and valerian tea.
Sleep liebling, sleep meine tochter.
Sleep and dream of growing things,
of long vines and pumpkin leaves,
of radishes and raspberries,
of rampion and rutabaga,
of planting fingernails underneath the marjoram
at the new moon.
She could never have loved you so well as I.
I slept. My hair strangled sparrows in the eaves.
She could never feed me, was the trouble.
Witches don't have breasts, you know.
They try to hide it,
in voluptuous suits,
high, plunging collars,
so much moon-dark black silk,
but beneath it—will you believe me
if I whisper to you that
they are like angels,
nude, unmarked, smooth as marble?
My mouth found no milk in her,
though I wept and suckled at a white wall
and called her mama, mama,
while my cheeks sunk in.
Wise as a walnut rattle,
she opened up books printed on appleskins.
While I wailed for her body in a cradle
hollowed from a green gourd,
she rocked me with her foot on a wide porch,
grimoires open on her lap like seed catalogues,
and the sun warm on her black dress.
With a moon-crooked grin,
she gave me carrots to suck,
and parsnips, turnips,
beets like blood-smears,
squash and pea-pods, corn-ears,
peppers burning like stakes on my lips,
chicory and watercress, eggplant,
cucumber, garlic and fennel, chard,
ginger, and long green leeks.
My arms grew long and white,
root-fibrous, with pale brown lines
winding round like the scars of old rings.
My fingers were thin, long as love,
twisted up like parsnip-tips,
my face beet-bright, my eyes leafy, unfurling.
And how my hair grew and grew,
until, when I was twelve,
she simply tottered up the stairs
to water me
and spread my braids out in the sun.
What would you have been,
she whispered, saliva threading her gums,
if I had left you to her sagging breast
and cow-teat bottles?
Meat? Bone? Milk? Blood?
Can you not love me, liebling,
who nestled you in a tower—
a plant will grow only so great as its pot.
Can you not say this is better?
How many times I wrapped
my parsnip-arms around her,
closed my wispy, corkscrewed fingers
over her skinny shoulders
and pressed her old, sorrowing head
to my rampion-breast,
which was no breast at all,
but pale cabbage-leaves,
thatch upon thatch.
I forgive you,
I forgive you.
A ladder of tangle-roots,
my tumbling hair. What should a daughter do
when her mother
can no longer climb the stairs? I fed her
the medicines of my ribs,
the tinctures of my clavicle.
I stroked her empty chest,
and pressed my own to hers.
I forgive you.
Let down your hair.
I am so thirsty, mother,
why does it not rain for me each evening
as it used to do?
She was dead by the time you came,
and I put my fingers into her mouth:
tomato-flowers burst form her teeth,
onion-stalks trickled green from her open eyes.
You saw a tower wrapped in vines,
in cornstalks like knotted ropes.
You slashed into them, searching for a door,
and I cried out three times. You heard only the sweetness
of wind singing through basil and mint,
and looked up, starving,
your teeth wet and white.
The cats have gnawed away
the white paint of the window pane—
through their teeth-marks the snow
is impossibly cold. Old light falls on the freeze
like long, blue bones. I didn't know
snow could be like this:
so bitter and bleak under the black,
dry and hard as dead skin.
You are so thin on the bedsheets,
thinner than anyone else I've brought here.
Your stubble is a forest of tiny shadows
in the windowlight. You are young as birch,
barely twenty, and I tell you like a confession:
Baba Yaga was young once, you know.
You laugh like a crow perched on my bedpost:
How do you know?
Born in Murmansk, you know everything.
I am just an American girl
with needle-green eyes and three cats—
what could I know about houses on chicken legs
and cupolas red as the skulls of sons in the dawn?
You like the curve of my hip
as it descends into my leg, certainly,
but this is your world we're talking about,
and I have no passport back
to those black, slantwise crosses,
those close-trunked woods,
that raw pig fat and salted fish you remember.
But she was young. She had hair so golden
it made the tsar cry once. He begged her to
rest within his treasury, with emeralds pressing
on all sides like green hands. She told him
she had pigs to feed.
She wore a green apron
like the tsar's emeralds, with goose-beaks
dangling from the strings,
and her cheeks were a little milk-fat,
whipped slap-pink by wind. She owned three
horses. She owned seven pigs with black spots.
You kiss the inside of my wrist.
You don't say her name right,
you laugh, and I am ashamed.
But her lips were so red. Red as menarche,
red as plague. She did not want the tsar.
She did not want
his silly daughters in their ridiculous hats
pestering her, echoes of their fur-belted father.
It was Sunday when she slaughtered her seven pigs,
one by one with the tip of a reindeer horn.
The churchbells struck the sky like hammers.
It was Tuesday when she made her suitcase,
and folded up into it:
her picket-fence of skulls and femurs,
her mortar and her pestle like a stone oar,
her birch broom dust-clung with snow.
She gave her horses, the red, the white, the black,
three apple cores, brown at the bite-marks,
and slapped their rumps as they trotted obediently
past the latches and straps.
She shook out a trail of corn from her apron-pocket
to entice her peak-roofed house into the bag.
It came hesitantly,
sniffing the air with its chimney,
hen-claws scrabbling back and forth,
Baba Yaga closed her valise with a snap like toes breaking.
I must be very careful
with what I tell you next.
I put my chin to your shoulder and speak
as slowly as a grandmother.
In New York,
they wrote down her name in a big book,
big enough to belong
in the library of Koschei the Deathless:
She blinked. It was not a name she knew. It was not
her name. Her house
creaked mournfully in her bag.
She settled in Ohio, in a forest with tall, thin birches
like fingers stuck in the soil. Her hair still peeked out,
golden-white, from a kerchief
at the meat-rendering plant
where she worked, cleaning all those bones to white,
all those bones, all those pretty skulls.
She had children, twins, and a daughter after,
and she did not tell her husband, the meat-foreman
with a beard like a tsar,
that some cold nights,
when the snow was hard and shrieking underfoot,
she wanted to eat them,
just to stop them squalling, red-faced as pigs.
Girls came, just as before.
Corn-yellow Midwestern girls,
looking for summer work before the fall semester,
willing to sweep out her stoop,
willing to scrub her mortar spotless,
bothering her with questions
about the old country, as if she wants to talk about it,
as if they do not hear
her peak-roofed house growling
like an old woman's stomach.
She didn't keep her fence, though,
I whisper into the curled bones of your ear.
There are no fences out here;
land blurs into land.
She cut it into grey slats and white rails
to make a bed,
with four posters and a creaking,
marrow-thick frame. On that bed
she kissed a foreman until his lips bled.
On that bed she had three children,
her womb stretching hip to hip. On that bed
she showed her granddaughter
a photograph, gone brown at the edges
like an apple core,
of a young woman in a dark wood,
with hair so golden
it might make a tsar cry.
I put my arm across your waist—so thin,
thin as a woman's. I am so hungry for you,
my throat is open, bright, wet. With
one gentle hand,
I turn your face,
pointing your gaze
at the foot of the bed.
Did you not see
the bedknobs glinting, my love?
Four great eyeless skulls
shine silver in the shadows
the moon throws
on hard, cracked snow.
Born in the Pacific Northwest in 1979, Catherynne M. Valente is the author of theseries, as well as , , , and four books of poetry, , , , and . She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is the winner of the 2006 Tiptree Award. She currently lives in a very full household in Ohio.