|Peregrine's self portrait (by me)|
Words rattle around inside my head, unspoken and unheard. They have ricocheted there so long that they feel like stones I must pry from the frozen earth. Only these words exist. Today, I am Peregrine. Who I once was or might have become is no longer of consequence. So pry I will, with this shattered crowbar. I need a conversation, even if it is only with myself.
This morning, I saw a woman, a woman known hereabouts as a bag lady or homeless woman, standing in the doorway of the bakery to escape the freezing rain. She was clutching a three seed roll, the roll that the beautiful hippie girl, Flower always offers the homeless when they come in to get warm.
Flower. So radiant, so handsome, her eyes as clear and blue as a cloudless September day. Sometimes, I think she has known no pain, but then, a shadow passes, and I know she has somehow managed to pass through pain and come out whole, or nearly whole on the other side. She wears long old-fashioned flowered dresses and white flour—sack aprons smudged with whole-grain flour. Her dark hair has a few strands of grey, not unlike my own, or not unlike my own a few years ago, before the white hairs began to outnumber the black. Her face is roundish, with a pointed chin and her cheeks are pink, verging on red from the heat of all the ovens. She ties her hair back with strips of leather, but sweaty wisps of it always come loose and dangle at her temple. She wears moccasins, much like mine, and I know, like me, she prefers bare feet and probably kicks off the moccasins the minute she leaves the bakery.
The woman, the bag lady, I think her name is Hannah, stood in the bakery doorway, which is recessed and protected from wind and rain to some extent, and took great hungry bites of the steaming three-seed roll. From the shadows where I stood watching, I could see the “smoke” of her breath and the wispier bits of steam rising from the roll. A flock of pigeons rose from the alley behind the bakery and flew in a single fluid motion, like water pouring through air, over the street through the freezing rain. I watched.
Suppose the rain froze to their feathers and they fell like stones to the pavement and shattered like glass? I held my breath, watching. And as I watched, the bag lady stepped out into the freezing rain, raised her face, and watched the pigeons dance in the sky. Even from where I stood, I could see joy on her weathered face. My hearth thumped. I wanted to go and place my hand on her arm and say, “Sister, we share a love of life and beauty,” but I did not. Instead, I stepped deeper into the shadows and hid behind the dumpster.
In that dumpster, earlier, I found this notebook and this shattered pen. It still writes, if I hold the thin sharp shards of plastic in a tight grip. When the bag lady left, I slipped to the back door of the alley and let Stormlight, Flower’s younger sister, hand me a three-seed roll. Stormlight has honey-colored long wavy hair and wears the same flowered dressed and sack aprons as Flower always wears, and her feet were bare, though she must slip on her moccasins when she goes into the public areas. I know bare feet violate a code, and a violation could cause the bakery to be shut down.
A roll or two a day isn’t much to eat, but some days, A roll or two is all there is. The bakery is only open for lunch. They are closed Sundays. Of course, the girls—young women, I should say-- are there baking long before lunch time, and in warm weather, the doors are open and we hungry ones can slip in after a couple of hours, when the first rolls start sliding out of the big ovens. We could, if our timing is right, have one for a late breakfast and one for a late lunch.
Of course, other food is available. Food lives in dumpsters, for example, behind the grocers and the restaurants and bars. Other homeless folk beg on the streets for money or food, but I do not. I like to stay out of sight. And at the village of the homeless, the tent city beyond the bridge behind the bakery, it’s possible, if one is desperate, to barter for food with other homeless people. But the price is more than I am willing to pay; I would rather starve, which is why I don’t go there anymore.
I will not tell here what happens to women and girls at tent city. Even elderly women like Hannah do well to avoid the place. Some of the men there are more animal than human, and it only takes one to ruin or end a life.
Of course, I forage for food. (Write more about this.) This is something I learned from my grandmother, Marialita. She was half Native American and half Mexican, Little Maria, who was not little, but large-boned and sometimes fat, when enough food was available to become fat. She taught me plants to use as food and medicines, and fibers for clothing, and how to set snares and dig holes to catch animals. I rarely trap animals, as I feel a kind of kinship with them. It is only when I am desperate that I will eat my brothers and sisters, the animal people, unless they have given their lives to cars, and then I scrape them up and use their bodies, because their souls have already gone elsewhere. Their bodies and soul remnants nourish me and talk to me and tell me secrets which if the others, those with homes, knew of, they would put me in one of their funny houses. Not funny ha ha, but funny weird crazy, as I am always labeled by anyone who sees or meets me.
Perhaps I am crazy, living on burdock root from abandoned lots, eating the leaves of lamb’s quarters, the tiny wild rosehips and the bitty peppery leaves of ox-eye daisies. Writing this reminds me of an essay I once read by Euell Gibbons called something like “Over-Survival on Bald Island.” He went out to see if he could survive only on wild edibles and ended up getting fat. But maybe he brought with him butter and flour—I no longer remember. I certainly don’t get fat on burdock root and wild carrot. It’s not tasty enough to eat more than I need. I wonder if the library has that essay; I’d like to reread it, but I don’t like going to the library often because they think . . . they think I’m a bag lady, dirty, smelly, and probably crazy. I don’t even like to write that down, but I believe it to be their truth even if it isn’t mine.
Or maybe it is my truth, and I am unwilling to admit it to myself. I think I am different than other bag ladies. And I am, but then again, each of them is different, in some ways, from every other bag lady.
Now that I have written these few words, the remaining words inside me have shriveled up and refuse to be birthed. Whether I shall ever tell whom I am and how I came to be here remains to be seen.
I apologize for the weird fonts, I tried to fix it without success, I am sorry.