The Wood Burning Prayer by Zia Pollis

Editor Sam Preminger, Editor's Choice, January 3rd, 2020

"The very presence of our pretty faces is pornographic."

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Personal Essay by Zia Pollis

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          When winter comes and the snow lays down like a thin layer of fat upon the sweet, hard muscle of the earth, the woodcutters know. Here in New Mexico, falling snowflakes crocheted in lacey ices and frosts lift up their frozen skirts and flirt with our men. Our fathers and brothers and lovers are made mad, wood-hungry and lusty for a different type of woman. The cold calls them out from under the warmth of their wives and adobe homes. They trek in troops of waterproof, camo-printed hunting jackets into the Gallinas backcountry, like mud-stained minstrels singing songs of strange love. For a few hours each day, they marry themselves to the matrons of the woods, dark women wedded and webbed in veils of lichen. Running their hands over rich, bark-breasts and mounds of mossy hip, the men look for the ripest. The sensitive hunters hear the dry flesh creak out an aching for a man’s hard touch. In love with the men who come to claim them, the trees fall as they are felled. The bodies of these brides break: ponderosas and cedars and aspens all put to bed by chainsaw.

          My sister and I stand on our front porch, thin workers’ gloves on hand. Our lame-legged pitbull, the one with hips born sideways from generations of pedigreed inbreeding, nibbles burs off his nuts while we wait for the men in pickup trucks. Our yard and others like it don’t seem so ragged in the winter. The sheets of corrugated roofing which patch holes in our fence are normally rain-stained and raw-looking, but now seem soft and pillowy as down mattresses. Disused fish tanks and forgotten plastic bottles, placed in the yard with the good intention of recycling, are filled like piggy banks of snow, hoarding this cash of moisture until summer brings the desert back and bankrupts New Mexico. The thin-lipped, puckered mouths of glass beer bottles which poke out of the flower beds are rimmed with sugar frost and the hard candy of ice. Even Old Granny’s furniture, buried up to the table legs and seat cushions, seems to have dissolved silently under the snow surface. Our former toilet, however, a solid and insoluble hunk of hardy, white plastic stands in eternal sight under the cover of a giant apple tree.

          It’s too cold on the porch. We hear the sound of a car on the road and finally the dirty green truck rises over our snowbanked driveway, sending a muddy confetti of slush everywhere. Most folks try to buy all their wood before the cold really comes in, but in our house we’ve been burning up faster than we thought we would. There’s a strange wetness to the cold this winter, like we’re all swimming through the season. Stuffing log after log into the greasy mouth of the wood stove, we’ve been trying to sweat the chill out of the house, but all that ever seems to come out is the halfway heat of a fire warm as old bathwater.

          The men back up with the long bed, their truck angled at a sharp thrust towards where we’re standing. They hop out. Landing all bouncy on their feet, they’ve got these Big Guy grins on. They give us looks with a greasy eyeball that leaves the slime of their looking on our bodies long after they’ve turned their heads. “Girlies ain’t usually in this business.” We suddenly become lewd in our rubber boots and muddy coats. The very presence of our pretty faces is pornographic. I glance at Zoe. Dogs bark and chew at the fence behind us.

          “Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker,” I say over and over in my head, counting a foul-mouthed rosary. They toss logs from the truck bed and we stack them builda-block style, creating walls, piles, collecting kindling, collecting sappy pitchwood. The women in my family know wood as much as any man. We know how to start fires, at least. Outfitted in sweatpants and those waterproof mud-slosh slippers, we are the pyre priestesses of the evening. We girls know how to pyramid. We know how to build up from newspaper or dry moss to cardboard and little, thin sticks to thick, slab sticks to branch logs wrapped warmly in bark to the biggest, side-split trunk logs. Those ones are all-nighters or middle-of-the-day-everyone-is-busy logs. We know all the different types, what to burn and when and how.

          Piñon is thick and sticky, the fattiest type of wood. We burn it late in the evening so as to last into the night. Those who wake after midnight and venture near the woodstove on their way to the bathroom can hear the piñon log’s faithful crackle in the dark. They hear the warm, sweet sizzle of resin melting like the sound of pork frying, all grease and red meat burning slowly away into the night.

          I am lucky. In my house the fry pan is always sizzling with bacon on the heat. Zoe lays down thick slab of sarcasm next to thick slab of pork, making a meal of flesh and flesh-biting humor. This is how we’ve learned to feed ourselves in the cold, cooking just ‘til it burns a little bit, that way the fire stays in the food. We are onion and garlic eaters. Slicing the crybaby bodies of thick red bulbs into tart slices, crushing the creamy-colored cloves with the heels of our palms, we sauté and fry and smoke all the bitter foods. We season with fat and salt until even mustard greens wilt into sweetness. In the Springtime, when the roosters start plucking the feathers out of the hens’ hindquarters and start hankering for some honey, we eat them, too. Dad gets the axe and we clear the table. Boiling the feathers off their backs in a hot pot of water, the birds roast up nice with the earthy fingers of baby carrots and potato wedges stuffed in their hollow places.

          This kind of cooking lubricates your bones, rims your joints and boney places with a thick cream of fat. The ladies out here tend to only have two options as they age: plump up or dry out. Those that go the way of old savannah grass and husks of snake skin tend to look mummified. Something about the dryness out here makes the skin crack and the hide off your face tan to a sweet jerky. These women, skinny and as blow-over as a tumbleweed, belong to Summer’s New Mexico. The other camp are more like my momma — they are Winter Swellers. It’s like they sucked all the water out of the boney broads and made themselves into these moist and meaty aquifers. These ladies — large and generous with rolling processions of rump and cresting hilltops of hindquarter are everybody’s momma. They’re cookers and large laughers, sending their faces a’wiggle like jellied meat.

          I don’t got anything against the thin ladies, but I know that wire and sinew won’t protect you against January’s hard breath. That’s why I find my father by the stove most nights. Crouched in a guilty squat, he blows weed smoke from a lemonade-bottle bong into the wood stove and closes the door real fast. He’s not supposed to smoke in the house, but he does this because he can’t sleep and these winters like him worse than us women. After all, he’s not fat, so he freezes. During this season he mulches, gently decaying under his browning bed sheets. Outside the long, sweet grasses once grasshopper-green and old paper, phonebook-yellow, lay down their waving heads in an anesthetized prayer. It must be something about the cold weather that makes his hair dry out into straw fodder. Just look, the laden trees drop their arms like ballerinas tired of the dance, limbs half-broken with snow. “Even they are tired of the cold,” he says, not leaving his bed that day. I look at my sister, “go put another log on the fire.”

          On the coldest nights, when the darkness seems a little too close to the windows, we burn cedar as a benediction, as a blessing. Sometimes Dad will fill a fire shovel with hot coals and sprinkle copal and sage and cedar brush down upon them. He hotboxes the house with prayer smoke, coughing the cold breath of depression out of his body for such a short period of time. It will be back soon though. It’s a loyal friend to listless men.

          So I measure time by the logs we burn. Each one pulling us along like mad train cars, carrying us behind a hot engine riding towards next year. Maybe Daddy will get his shit together whenever the winds stop blowing cold. Meanwhile we must burn. We burn until the spring comes in a thin crust of sunshine and clashes down upon the melting winter world like a dropped china plate. We burn until baby bird red robins, born like a blush on the sky, overtake the red of our fires. We burn until all the wood is gone. Snow gone. Cold gone. Then the flowerbeds will finally wake, pulling off the sheets of snow, and the fruit will bud on the apple trees in a thousand tender tumors, and the sprouts will stretch out of the naked dirt like the raised arms of a sexy chorus girl in long green gloves. And then next year’s warmth will begin to grow in the firm and fibrous flesh of our women.

          We are wrought-iron women, rough-faced beauties, rusty and full-bellied. We are spring pigs and burning logs, things hungry for heat. We live with mouths open, chewing the ash and fat of a life lived hard and beautiful up in craggy country.

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Header image courtesy of Jessica Dunegan. To view her artist feature, go here.

Zia Pollis is a poet and visual artist from the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in Northern New Mexico. She has competed in several New Mexican poetry slams, the town of Taos’s annual Verse Converse Poetry Festival, and the national youth poetry slam, Brave New Voices held in Chicago, Illinois. She is a graduate of the United World College-USA and is currently completing her BA in English and Creative Writing from Reed College in Portland, OR. Her upcoming poetry collection, How to Eat a Woman, will be completed this summer.

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Sam Preminger

Sam Preminger is a Portland-based poet. Their work has appeared throughout various publications and they hold an MFA from Pacific University.