Harney County Lullaby, by Andrew Murphy
Burns, Oregon in late summer, apparently, smells like fresh-split kindling. I am three whiskey sours in and it’s my mother telling me this.
She left Burns when she was twelve to attend boarding school and has nothing kind to say about her own mother and father, who collected rent on nearly a thousand acres of high desert in southeastern Oregon until we leased the land to the government for a penny.
Yes, one cent provides the Department of the Interior an opportunity to restore an expansive watershed favored by migrating birds. It was diverted one hundred years ago for cattle grazing and irrigation needs elsewhere. I am the one who instructed our lawyer to negotiate this contract.
Let’s just be done with it, Mother kept saying—but I couldn’t imagine what we would do with all the money offered by a couple of suits representing I can’t remember who.
The Northern Paiute, instead of making an offer, sent a hand-written note: To own something is to kill it.
No argument there. My father got full custody when I was three years old; but I am still relieved, for instance, when my mother sounds like she is happy to hear from me.
Getting a $.01 check every year with the Statue of Liberty stamped on the front also makes me smile, but only the way a midwife might look upon a newborn.
My father is dead, but I live in his house. She’s in Salem now, Oregon’s mild-mannered capital. We both live alone, my mother and I.
My ambition is to call her up someday and tell her I drink too much, which is a lie; but also that I can’t imagine her as a young woman. Try, she will say. How? I ask. Light a candle, each night before you go to bed.
Now we have a fire hazard on our hands.
Andrew Murphy currently lives in San Francisco, California, where he lectures in English at San Francisco State University. He is a dual-national and has lived on and off in Belfast for many years, where he has family.