"Every Translation Is an Act of Violence" and "The Humanity Principle"
Every Translation Is an Act of Violence
When the roots of the moon catch fire,
a brigade of women puts the fire out,
buckets of sand and water passed hand to hand
down the line, which stretches from the earth to the moon.
This secret ritual is known as the blood
moon. The fire women form a chain
through the sky to douse the flames.
It is hard work, and you do not choose this job: it chooses you.
It takes all night. A moon fire is unlike
an ordinary fire, feeding not on oxygen but on
its lack. You can only fight nonsense with
other nonsense, and so while the women stand
(all rules of gravity cease to apply) they recite favorite recipes
backwards. Some sing, but in private languages no one else
understands. And through this combination
of hard labor, happy refusal, and heroic minds,
a fire in the roots of the moon can be put out.
Life is like this: impossible to understand,
but true, the blind leonine face of a phalaeonopsis orchid,
or the sounds children make while dreaming.
The one who is not dreaming cannot see or hear the dream,
but the dreamer experiences complete comprehension,
as long she does not turn her head away, but continues to gaze steadily,
as one might gaze into the blue-eyed flame of a candle.
When the moon fire is over, the women sleep for days.
Some do not remember what they have done, or their courage.
They only feel the ache in their muscles, in the ropes of their arms.
Others feel the need to speak endlessly of the experience, and must
seek out the other women, which is difficult, as they
come from the four corners of the earth. In the end, the
women return to their lives. Nothing could induce them
to explain to another person, an outsider, someone who has never
fought the moon. The scarred and the unscarred are estranged. It is
a matter of translation: we do not have the words in this language.
The Humanity Principle
Once when we lived on Muirfield,
an old lady sat on the front steps for hours.
First, I noticed her, and then my mother did, and then
my father, and we all asked the same questions,
can we call someone? Do you need help? I brought a folding chair,
because sitting on the bricks seemed to cause pain.
She sat on that chair for a long time, well
into the night, saying my son is coming to get me my daughter is coming.
But no one came, it was clear that no one ever would,
as clear as the windows through which I watched her
from the second floor of our house, the house which is gone
now, the house that burned. Who might I call? my mother asked brightly,
like she was taking an order for luncheon. My mother was a great one
for luncheons and teas: in consequence, I was a debutante. The lady was little
and old with a wispy white bun. She wore a dress, I think—I can’t really recall.
Brown, maybe, with a pattern. Our house burned down, everyone who
knows me knows this, but I sometimes forget, especially when I first wake
up, I wake up in my room at home, except I am not there, and this hurts.
A pain in my chest, perhaps a cracked rib. Words do not suffice. The lady
would not say where she had come from, or what she was doing.
And when we asked, do you need help, she shook her head, insistent,
help doesn’t help. I cannot remember her face or the pattern of her dress,
but I remember that: help doesn’t help. When our house was burning, I screamed
until paramedics put me on a stretcher and tried to take me to the hospital.
I would not go. Help doesn’t help. The handsome young paramedic told me don’t you worry
a neighborhood like this one, you’ll have a nicer house than you had before.
But I knew there was no insurance and that we were not going to have a nicer
house, we were not going to have a house, not anymore. The lady sat
in the folding chair until it was very dark, and finally
we did call someone, and strangers in uniforms took her away, and I remember
the look on her face, help doesn’t help. Even though she was very polite, handing me
back the glass of water I had given her, trying to fold the metal folding chair,
she looked right through the skin on my face, as if she were saying
it didn’t seem like you would betray me. That is betrayal, trust misplaced,
you trust until you don’t, until you get hurt. The house is gone.
The lady is gone. I am gone. And there is no help,
help doesn’t help, I am left holding the bag, in which I have
placed a metal folding chair and an empty water glass. Or no,
there is no bag, and I am not holding anything, only myself,
for whom there is no help. And so now I ask you to listen
to me, put down the phone, don’t make the call, let the lady sit,
because sometimes, all the time, we—jesus, Amy, get some help
Amy Newlove Schroeder's book, The Sleep Hotel, received the Field Prize and was published by Oberlin College Press. She teaches writing and ethics in the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC.