The Dirt on the Universe

by Lisa López Smith

N.B.: We recommend mobile viewing in landscape.

The starlings, blackbirds, and turtle doves steal grain from the hens. I am the chief shit-sweeper of the hens every morning, amidst the frantic flutter of the wild birds escaping. The morning hen poop is thick and gooey, and for me, shit sweeping is my daily reminder, as a rabbi advised centuries ago, to carry a paper in one pocket that says: I am but dust and ashes. For balance, as necessary, pull out the paper in the other pocket: the Universe was created for me. I once saw the back pasture full of lightning bugs flickering in blackness, and I knew it was true. I saw the Milky Way alighting delight across the middle of the desert. It was true. But, most days have their feathers, stains, and shit.

A blind, featherless starling fell out of the nest on the front patio, and it stayed alive for four days with a heating blanket and watery tuna that I tweezed into his throat with a pair of nail scissors every four hours. Then it died, as baby birds do when they fall out of their nests too soon. Why even try for four days and three long nights? As if birds could understand the language of my intentions, as if my efforts made any difference at all, as if the world needed one more starling. On the other hand, failure makes for a remarkable mix-tape of all the songs I don’t understand or appreciate on the first listen. 

The grain for the hens attracts pests so cats are a reasonable solution. One is majestic and dignified. The other is farty and drools a lot. The princess doesn’t stoop to hunt, but Roy, the farty one, brought me a baby rat, leaving it decapitated in two untidy pieces on the patio. In the laundry basket, I found another baby rat, several days dead,  maggots already burrowing through the dirty clothes. Roy, expectant for some appreciative token, observed me gagging in the laundry. I don’t always write about laundry, but I wonder why there aren’t more songs about the piles of it, clean and dirty. How more unfinished shit feels a bit like a failure. As if I wasn’t drowning enough, another stray dog shows up. What’s the difference between five dogs and six? Or seven? Chaos is still chaos. Maybe all that disarray is compound interest on the sacred, just like how the universe keeps expanding, so do laundry piles and numbers of abandoned puppies.

The baby goats nibble on my hair when I crouch down to their level, perhaps because it looks like straw to them or because goats are indifferent to what anyone else believes. The more time I shepherd goats, the more I feel that they have much to teach, sort of like the rabbi with the strips of paper in his pockets. Their language is even subtler, however. They are generous with their whole beings—giving milk and goat kids, and affection, yet they also march around this kingdom with those horns like middle fingers directed at the world; fences and rules be damned. We can be both, I think is what they’d say if we spoke the same language. But who listens to goats?

The whole planet is seven billion threads both knotting together and simultaneously tearing apart. I knot myself closer when I can because humans are not meant to be islands. I learned to speak Portguese by memorizing Bandeira’s poem, “Canção do vento e da minha vida” (Song of the wind and of my life). When I try to speak Italian, now it comes out in Spanish. I don’t go to church, but I have walked across the Sonoran desert. I’m the child of immigrants, and I am an emigrant. All these things are my own tiny knots, loosening and tightening. When my Mexican neighbors talk about crossing to the States, my fear runs cold like the desert night. We all want the same thing for our children. I preen and fuss and tuck the blankets around my own boys at night like a hen arranging the eggs under the safe warmth of her feathers. We all do.

The stars don’t move as I float in the water, nothing between me and infinity but gases and galaxies. Bandeira wrote,

O vento varria as luzes, (the wind sweeps the lights)
O vento varria as músicas, (the wind sweeps the songs)
O vento varria os aromas, (the wind sweeps the scents)
And my life became evermore
Full of scents, of stars, of songs

I hold my breath underwater looking at the sky and thinking that the world has a long way to go, and sometimes the mess overwhelms me. It’s like this translation I was working on: I had to research functions of automatic weapons: magazines, cartridges, shells, to find the right English words. I had to research the alphabet soup of kidnapping departments and police jargon. I was doing a translation about forty-three students who got disappeared one night in Guerrero. Forty-three names, forty-three poems, forty-three teenagers training to be teachers.

One of the speckled hens rolls in her dust bath, tossing reddish powdery earth over herself. So it goes: one language into another, goat milk into cheese, life into death. Dust and universe. We are both dirt and sacred. Expanding and dying. Both love and, also, cleaning the same chicken shit every day. But, when I angle my view just right––holding precious breath in my lungs until it hurts––in the midst of all the dust and chaos, I can feel right down through my frail bones that the Universe was created for me, immense and beautiful, and I lift my own wobbly song––an offering, of dirt and snot and flowers.

Lisa López Smith’s “The Dirt on the Universe” appears in Flock 24.

Lisa López Smith is a shepherd and mother making her home in central Mexico. When not wrangling kids or rescue dogs or goats, you can probably find her wandering the wilds of Jalisco on bike or horseback. Recent publications include: Maine Review, Sky Island Journal, Mom Egg Review, and Tiferet, and some of these journals even nominated her work for Best of the Net and the Pushcart prize in 2020.