We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you're thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn't your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
THE HEART OF OCTOBER
Dusk south of Barcelona, the slopes
leading up to the fortress, a city
of wooden crates and cardboard shacks
staggers up the mountain as the rain
runs down, a black river. The final night,
I whisper to no one. A patch of red,
the single moving thing, comes toward me
to become the shirt of a young girl,
eleven or twelve. Bare- legged, picking
her way to avoid the sharp stones,
she reaches me. Through perfect teeth
in her perfect mouth she demands a duro
one hand held out. Only one duro
she insists, stamping a naked foot,
browned and filthy on the filthy earth.
When I pay up and turn for home
she is beside me laughing as the rain
streams down her forehead, her short hair
a black cap plastered in place. "A duro
she demands again. "Another?" I say.
"Yes, of course," she laughs into the face
of the rain, "and after that another."
Even a child knows the meaning of rain:
it is the gift of October, a gift
that arrives on time each autumn
to darken the makeshift shacks and lighten
the hillside with a single splash of color.
NEWS OF THE WORLD
Once we were out of Barcelona the road climbed past small farm-
houses hunched down on the gray, chalky hillsides. The last person
we saw was a girl in her late teens in a black dress & gray apron
carrying a chicken upside down by the claws. She looked up &
smiled. An hour later the land opened into enormous green meadows.
At the frontier a cop asked in guttural Spanish almost as bad
as mine why were we going to Andorra. "Tourism," I said. Laughing,
he waved us through. The rock walls of the valley were so
abrupt the town was only a single street wide. Blue plumes of
smoke ascended straight into the darkening sky. The next morning
we found what we'd come for: the perfect radio, French- made,
portable, lightweight, slightly garish with its colored dial &
chromed knobs, inexpensive. "Because of the mountains, reception
is poor," the shop owner said, so he tuned in the local Communist
station beamed to Spain. "Communist?" I said. Oh yes, they'd
come twenty- five years ago to escape the Germans, & they'd stayed.
"Back then," he said, "we were all reds." "And now?" I said. Now
he could sell me anything I wanted. "Anything?" He nodded. A
tall, graying man, his face carved down to its essentials. "A Cadillac?"
I said. Yes, of course, he could get on the phone & have it out
front— he checked his pocket watch— by four in the afternoon.
"An American film star?" One hand on his unshaved cheek, he
gazed upward at the dark beamed ceiling. "That could take a week."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from News of the World by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2009 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.