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Valley of the Palms

When people tell me their problems, I think
of Maria: wasn't every girl named Maria
in Mexico then? Bt this one lived
for a time at a high desert rancho in Valle
de Las Palmas, a place of cattle, thin horses,
scorpions, baby owls in cages, rattlesnakes caught
by the orphan boys who slept locked in pens
so they couldn't sneak out and raid the beds
of girls locked in their own pens ten feet
from the boys.

If a fire ever came through...but God was merciful. Was He not?
No fires. Just orphans. Just work. Just fried pork skins
and indigenous gods washed out of the hills in floods: fat
bellied women crouching with jaguar screams on their faces
carved in the local gray stone. Just missionaries
making popcorn and bringing thrown-out clothes.
The endless uproar of orphans.
The voices like a tide of laughter and insults.
The rusty clank of evening cowbells.
And Maria.

Never smiling. Maria.
Off to the side. Staring.
Maria who would take my hand and walk with me but who
would not look at me. Maria six years old. Scabby knees.
Somber as a priestess in that burned orange sunset in her valley
on her rancho with these strangers.

And I asked. I had to ask. I always asked--the poet needing to know
the secrets of the valley. Looking for notes, looking for stories, I asked
Why is Maria so serious all the time? Why does Maria
not smile or play?
And the adults said, Well, her father
worked in bad cantinas in Tijuana and Mexicali.
Her father took her from bar to bar, where he made her work.
He made her work in these bars where strippers made love to animals.
In these bars where strippers made love to animals, her father made love to her
for money and had men make love to her for money every night.
Every night she cries in her bunk and she does not smile in the day
and she does not play.

Maria walked around the rancho holding my hand.
It was spring. The little yellow flowers exploded from the dirt like skyrockets.
Every wind smelled of cows and horses and dust moved like smoke in the roads.
We sat on a wall. She twisted my finger. I said, "Maria.
Do you want me to pick you a flower?"
Dusk was coming, purple through the valley. Crows
like black glitter fell upon the dead trees. No water in the river, just
a buried Ford station wagon. Cows shuffled home with orphan boys
poking them with sticks.

"It will be dark soon," she said.
And, "Do you love me?"

We didn't look at each other once.

"Of course," I said.

"Say it."

"I love you."

"Yes, then.
Give me

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