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Kathleen Johnson

Snapshots from Warr Acres

                   Warr Acres, a suburb of Oklahoma City, 1960-1962


See the neatly-mowed front yard into which my mother dragged his smoldering mattress when my brother set his bed on fire while I slept in my crib in the room we shared.  Kneeling on the hard floor, freckle-faced Scottie at five, flicking our father’s lighter again and again at the bottom fringe of his red chenille bedspread.


This is the chainlinked backyard I left from when I ran away with Babesy, the Apache boy next door, when I was two.  Several hours after the police were called, some neighbors found us.  I was clutching  a rabbit’s tail.


Look at these three, sun-washed and bathing-suited, posing on beach towels in the backyard:  me at three, the pudgy middle-aged woman named Margie who sometimes babysat me, and my slim and smiling mother, also named Margie, who was sure that if she were just pretty enough, or wore enough Shalimar, my father would stop hiding gift-wrapped bottles of My Sin for other women in the trunk of his car. 


Here’s the sidewalk in front of my house where my best friend, Pammy, and I, when we were three, started walking for blocks along East 56th Street, cars flying past.  We had a nickel.  We were going to the store to buy perfume.


And there’s the blue Ford in the driveway, me sitting on my father’s lap in the front seat as he drove, both of our hands on the wheel, vodka still hot on his breath.


And no photograph of this, either:  my first memory—of me standing up in my crib next to an open window, face pressed to the screen, violet evening light in the west, backyard swingset chains creaking in the breeze.  Me, mute and kneegreen in May, witness to the wholly untroubled Oklahoma sky.  


Following the Red Hills Home

The Kansas guide book says turning south here is like entering another world.  And it is.  Land empties of people. Wind-sculpted hills rise up from the plains. At dusk, Herefords graze beneath an indigo sky.  Wild turkeys roam the red canyons.  Deer step out from the dark shapes of cedar trees.  I’ve come looking for Flowerpot Mountain, a mesa made legendary by my great-great grandfather, the Pilgrim Bard, who wrote a story about a ghost named Lenora Day he saw one night spent sleepless under the stars here. He believed, as I do, that the imagined is as real as the rest of it. Now I’m chasing ghosts on lonesome roads, looking for that mythical mound. This July night there is a rare blue moon—the second moon in one month.  It rises early, glows large and copper in the east. To the west: wild sky—a twilight dance of cloudscape and landscape lit by seething sun. This magical place feels more like home than any place I’ve ever known. The Bard’s spirit haunts these hills where he wrote verse and stories more than a hundred years ago, a buffalo bone picker and poet, alone on the open prairie. But just when I see a mound shaped like an inverted flowerpot, another one comes along, then another. No cars or houses anywhere, darkness moves in, and the red dirt road keeps circling back on itself. I realize I have no idea where I am, who I am, how to get home. I am lost in the Red Hills with only a blue moon to light my way.


Alabaster Caverns

For twenty years up north I’ve tried to remember what the Oklahoma light was like.  Now I’m back to see prairies of sagebrush and mesquite, the rugged land where my ancestors and I were born.
          After miles of cedar-dotted canyons and
          wind-blown wheatfields,
          past the steep bluffs of the Cimarron,

I stop at the area’s most famous landmark. It’s early afternoon, a burning July, as I step from brutal sunshine into dark.  My teenaged guide, a farm boy from Freedom, my father’s hometown, leads me more than half a mile underground on a private tour of the largest gypsum cave in the world.

          We pass massive boulders of alabaster,
          all cold to the touch.
          Walls are wet, the narrow path slick.
          Seepage from the roof feeds a small stream
          that meanders through the cavern.

My guide tells me the brook was once a roaring river, two hundred million years ago this site was covered by an inland sea.  He points out salamander and raccoon tracks in the mud as we hike past Mirror Lake, Devil’s Bathtub, Echo Dome.  The strong smell of guano is everywhere from bats hanging high above our heads.  Mid-tour in the deep heart of the cave, he flips a switch, turns off every light.  Such dark I have never known. 

          A sudden buzz of terror in the blood,
          a glimmer of premonition: 
          I will know this black again. 

Lights back on, my fingers find the handrail with every step.  My guide laughs when he tells me that just yesterday his coworkers turned off all the lights, unaware he was still in the cave.  He was forced to feel his way out, crawling on the damp floor. Now he carries a flashlight. 
          We continue
          in a winding corridor
          of stone.  In dim light:
          white gypsum, pink
          alabaster, pale
          crystals of selenite. 

At the end of the path, at last, a wide mouth of sunlight.  Then
          meadowlark song,
          wild bursts of Indian blanket,
          cottonwoods shimmering
          against azure sky. 

 And I walk out dazzled into familiar brilliance, into open arms of red earth. 


Spring Pilgrimage to Tahlequah

On the road to visiting the land of ancestors I don’t remember
I pass the land of ancestors I do remember, the highway
a snake slithering through past lives, slithering across
a rugged country of red buttes and mesas.  Family
lies surround me still, echo off steep cliffs of
the Cimarron, hang thick in the humid
Oklahoma air.   Funnel cloud or
ghost rider in the sky carrying
secrets?   I listen hard for
stories never told.  
All I hear is