from Pin it on a Drifter
I can tell you about my boy.
He seems to have some truce with distance.
He was born with his eyes open
and has never known awe since.
Once, a field snake traced a wave
across our floor during supper.
Even his father gasped. My boy watched our shock
as if it was an odd species of bird at the feeder.
He rose and opened the cellar doors, descended,
and came back with—had he known it was there?—
a drowned mouse. He placed the wizened pelt
on the rug and stared. I stared at my husband
who never took his eyes off of his boy. The snake
oozed out from a closet and opened itself to feed.
As it worked its knot of flesh down its body
my boy picked it up with both hands,
like holding leather reins, and walked it outside.
It was an act of genius. We talked about it
until he grew embarrassed, maybe even cross,
as we called him charmer, nature boy, our hero.
As a reward he wanted what he always wanted:
to stay up and play checkers with his father.
That night he got to king and huff until
my husband had to go to bed to wake for baling.
Then I took his chair. Even after his father died
he did not seem afraid. That would have been easier
than what he grew into: disappointment
in the very air he breathed. When the June corn
began its fragile contract, when a voice rasped out
the spring’s first scores on the radio, when,
every spring, the barn broke out in strays—
nothing held his mind like it had before.
Some hard North had opened inside of him.
And his mother was walking fields of her own.
He spent hours throwing a baseball onto barn’s roof,
and catching the caroms in his glove.
It took the tiles off, but who could tell him no.
Harvest opened its theatres of dust
as the wind makes a drama of what the plow billows—
dust like sheets of silk opening toward flesh,
dust like a parcel of birds lifting in unison,
quick pillars of dust that give way
to history if history can move its grains
as quick as wind, which it can—
none of this hooked his attention out
of itself. Nor the scrabble ice makes of the yard
in winter. Nor the buzzard halos of the death
spring reveals. He was my boy, but he had elsewhere
in him. Even when hot with work,
he seemed like he was looking through a window
at something far off, some other country
with no grass. He was as closed as a scar.
I had seen this in other men, father’s parishioners,
the farmers my husband called friends.
Men who no longer smelled the stifling sugar
of a cornfield or heard the magpie’s fits,
or something other than stars
when stars gather close as if circling
someone who has collapsed.
Men who have let distance in. My boy
was becoming one among them.
Then the devil came. He said he was here
about baseball—that’s why I let him in.
The last man who came into my house
brought a census form. He had sweated
through his shirt and was all breath and leer.
When I only reported me and the boy
he asked if it was really just us little two
out here with all this land. I couldn’t say why
but it felt like my lungs were lined with paste.
He grinned. I had the boy show him out
and spent the night mourning whiskey’s ghost.
The devil was more professional. He spoke
mostly to the boy, talking of average and range.
Position. He rose to fetch himself some water
and that’s when the afternoon blistered open.
I don’t know where the rope came from (around
his waist) but I knew the rag that reeked of straw
that he used to bind my mouth. It was my husband’s—
he would wrap it around his right palm
to keep the twine from drawing blood
while stacking bales in the barn’s loft.
It hung a nail up there. Once I recognized
its paisley blue, I knew that this man had been in the barn
watching us, that he had seen me dump laundry water,
cull the orchard, try awkwardly to play catch with my boy.
Who knew what else. Who knew what else.
As he whispered to me what I looked like to him,
and where he would go inside of me, and for how long,
as if evil was a thing that a voice need tune up for,
I tasted my husband’s hand on that rag.
Yet terror came in its thick, loose waves.
I thought to pray, but my mind was so taken
I couldn’t remember a single supplication my father
had taught me, only the brimstone rhythms
he used to drill a psalm home, which I filled
with if this is the worst, if this is the worst…
What scared me most was that the devil seemed scared.
After he got the boy to stop his screaming
by putting the knife under my chin
he would stare at the window as if trying to see
how the light gets in for minutes at a time.
He would come close and clutch my hair
as if he was the boy woken from a nightmare,
then sit again. It was so quiet we could hear
the train whine West past the grain elevator.
In the weeks after he left, I began to think about
the devil’s exhaustion. How many had he opened
and filled with October: wind, clean rain
and days stunned by their own emptiness.
Idle hands. He must have been looking for some
lone house filled with some new hue of light to covet
but only found us. Looking at him at the table
I couldn’t help remembering the farmers’ boys
after church eyeing the girls, even each other’s mothers,
trying to seem lorn, grown beyond reproach,
having made careful study of the erotics
of staring at the ground. This art the devil knew well
as he lost himself in our wooden floor
as if expecting sudden wheat to burst through.
In our barn, he must have yearned for
the inertia of machines, the luxury of rust.
To be shut off. No grope. No fragment
working its way deeper into the body.
No more hymns of money. No redress
or red dress. When he focused on us again,
he walked up to my pent body—
with awkwardness, as if he was directed to do so—
and reached for the buttons on the back
of my dress. My boy sprang up and began
to shove the him who—as if by choice—
let himself be backed away from me.
My boy started again to shout for help
and in the fever of that stricken minute
(bless him and all who have begged
these fields for more than they can yield)
called out to his father. The devil
turned to salt. The boy might as well have
scribbled his death in pencil on the wall,
shown the hard lines of the world without him.
He sat down. Of course, he invented this
for himself, chose this house (as I knew
he would), this boy to frighten into hollering
Daddy into the light-shot room, which, somehow,
made him stagger back into a chair. Maybe
he wanted this to happen, to open inside of himself
some ruin that needed witness.
Maybe he came to a country without edge
to be emptied, like the end of a century
My boy, even in the moment in which his childhood
became a wrecked meadow, was embarrassed
to have revealed that, like the time he ran
holding his crimsoned eye, lashed by a branch,
not home to me, but out to his father with the plough
acres away. It seemed like an hour for the skiff
of my son to reach the shore of my husband.
I was just across the barnyard. I knew then
that only my husband meant retreat.
I came with complications—how can I, why did you,
tell me what you need. So when he cried out
I felt—after a moment, like I might collapse,
but in the instant when he forgot the fact
his father’s grave, its scrabbled pinto grass,
and called for him to help his son—
what I can only call joy. My husband is dead
but the closest we can come to reunion
is to expect his body in a room
and be shocked that he isn’t there.
Country people are of two minds about spirits.
Either they deny they exist and walk
into any hall or field of shadow knowing
no one will tremble out of the stillness
to voice some black prophecy in their ear.
Or else they see them everywhere: a ghost
in the hollowed pine, one pent in a well’s
core of echoes, bales of ghosts
in the shorn acres waiting to be lofted for winter.
I am one of the former. This is not some sad shore
the dead come to trawl for recognition.
But all agree that they do not come and go.
Nothing sneaks up on you here. My husband
came as close as anyone has to coming back.