Thursday, April 3, 2008
The pure water of Elk River
runs turning and leaping down
the ancient rocks of Avery County
like the last deer wild of the woods
flees, not touching a rock or tussock
of dark earth, rich with the promise
of the new year beneath the slanting
rains of spring that soften even the
hardest heart. In the turning of the year
of 1940, the people of the valleys of the
mountains, in the thin air near to a mile
high, waited for the rain to end, so they
could clear boggy patches of cabbage and
feed shower-pale cattle. But they did
not know the land itself was full, saturated
as the lightest heart takes love, deep as the
rocks of Brown’s Mill Pond, across Proffitt’s
Knob, not seven miles as the shrew tunnels,
but a life away. The people waited in the
imperfect shelter of roofs, under cedar shakes
and bent rafters until they heard the roaring
sky river and felt the earth move as a
coiled panther, stretching its buried spine and
leaping until it cleared itself of all pretense,
twisting around the house-high boulders above
cabins that had stood for two-hundred years,
shaking itself like a wet cat, shuddering
mud and trees down sharp hollows. The breath
of this storm from far oceans swept houses
clean as the trees of autumn, without the deep
colors of death, and wrenched timbers and windows
from their places to settle in new ravines where
the mud, like a mouth of earth, ate them, leaving
only splinters of people to marvel at the new slopes
scented with the breath of far, salt seas.. The few
who could speak of this had no words, but
quietly collected the infant who had been buried
head-deep in the spoilings and the father swept three
miles to Cranberry where he was found draped on
the plank of a bridge just lacking a pipe and rocking
chair to make him a home. Others were broken and
battered like the gneiss and granite boulders new to
light among the soft droppings of earth black as the
mountain’s heart. They took them on trucks to Boone,
wading waist-deep roads turned suddenly to streams
and battling passages through hells of laurel and hemlock
as if the land wanted them too early for its new dust and
felt cheated of their flesh. The few were saved, tortured
by scars, and returned to the hills as deer to the beds they
know, twisting themselves in a coil of familiar sleep, and
planting cabbage shoots among rows of corn with snap-beans
set to climb the stalks, but the children of children of the land,
remembering the fickleness of the beast inside, straining to get out, left the stale
hills for jobs in flat cities, returning to dig trenches they filled
with gravel and perforated black pipes in the illusion
that they could control the meandering of water, the presence
of earth, the dark certainty of death.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Daddy had a mule he bought
When he was all of eighty two,
For he said that he ought
Not to sit home with nothing to do.
He lived in Mountain City
After selling Proffitt's Knob
For nine thousand, hard money,
And he missed the parts of a job.
But more he missed the seasons,
The feel of the plow in his hands,
And he had to tame the demons
That kept him uneasy off the land.
So he went to the county fair
Held way down in Johnson City
And found a mule with jet black hair
And a slim leg that made him pretty.
He kept him in an old tin barn
Along with his feed and tack,
Just a stone's throw from the new home
Away around the back.
I'd often find him in his field
After he got a tobacco license,
And he got a pretty good yield
That he sold at the Burley warehouse.
He worked that mule the day he died
In his armchair in Mountain City.
As his life, his death was a surprise,
But the mule was sold, a pity!
I worked out on the knob
Till I was near eighteen,
Toiling among the rock
That were sprinkled on our farm
Or driving in the cows
That we kept enclosed
By some boards we stretched across
Where the hillside jutted close.
For Daddy Jim was up at light
And kept the place so clean,
It was a truly sparkling sight
White against the valley's green.
We were took most every day,
I mean the boys that is,
When the sun was slanting far away
To hoe the field of corn that was
Just beside the rocky spring
Whose sweet water nourished it.
We'd weed and scrape the ground away
So suckers wouldn't discourage it.
For daddy said the corn was like
A woman with a secret love,
Needing some gentle talk
Not a clumsy, heated shove.
Daddy took one tool and worked
Busily along the rows
While Fred, and Tommy, and tall Jack
Spread out with their hoes.
It was early summer then,
And the stalks were close about my waist,
And looking out across that corn
My disaffection took a rise.
So I called out to him,
"When will this work be done?
For I'm fed up from
Sweating in the hot sun!"
He said, "Now Lee, you better git
It right. I run this place,
And we're gonna hoe this field tonight
If we have to give the moon a race!"
All of a sudden that old hoe
Blistered right up in my fist,
And I couldn't wait to go
From that rocky, hoe-scratched place.
And I did. I left right then
With just these parting words to him,
"This God damn hoe don't fit my hand!"
And I threw it in the corn.
Since then it has been many years
And I have known a lot of strife
From Kasserine Pass to Sicily
And I have two girls and a wife.
But whenever I meet my dad
His mouth is thin and drawn,
As he says that old hoe blade
Is still rusting in the corn,
But he says it with respect,
And he firmly takes my hand
As if I have been brought
Into the company of men.
Once I followed Daddy Jim
Way down in the valley
To the house of cousin June
Right next to the cemetery.
I found a marble block
And hid myself behind,
For he looked strange when he left
And didn't know I heard.
He had said he was going down
The hollow to Tom Mast's store,
But he took the path to town.
I thought he was lost for sure.
So I tagged along behind
And now I was hiding,
For I was greatly afraid
That somehow he would spy me.
Then he came out with Em, June's wife
And they snuck to where I was,
No more than ten feet in clear light
So I know everything that passed.
"I can’t stop loving hard,”
She said, and he said back,
"Them are powerful big words,
Now I need some proof of it."
She stepped toward him. Then she took
Her dress and pulled it down,
And without that clinging cloth,
Her skin was marbled as the stone.
Daddy fumbled with his belt,
Breathing in thick pants.
They regarded each other for a spell
Then he took her with a grunt.
Right upon the flattened block
That was the tomb of Uncle Jessie,
They wildly pitched and bucked
In spasmed ecstasy.
After finishing that act,
He walked home laughing,
But they both were very distant
At the next church gathering.
They didn't seem to glance
At each other all the while,
Regarding each other in a trance
And without the trace of a smile.
I was chosen that very time
To pass the Communion plate,
So I handed it to him
And watched his stony face.
He took the blood dark wine
And pressed it to his lips,
As if he could wash away all sin
And eat the crusty bread of forgiveness.
Now I still love my father,
But he's lost my respect,
And I could never bother
To like him half as much.
We set the row of hemlocks
Thin and feathery bright,
Just where the line of fence posts
Barely catches the morning light.
I remember it well. The dirt
Was soft, and the sun danced on
The sky. My ma and I worked
Half a day and settled every one.
They grew and thrived beside our house
Far back in the hill
Where there is no other noise
As the rushing waters spill.
They grew with me every year
Until they reached the window's height
And spread until they now appear
In green and rustling light
That bends around the window frame
And flows into the room
With a sound that is the same
As water rushing swiftly down.
That was so many years ago.
I now am old and face
The rushing years that swiftly flow
Hardly leaving any trace.
But for fifty years I’ve dreamed,
Startling and crystal clear,
How for the length of a day we stayed
Together setting these hemlocks here.
They called him Rooster or Daddy Jim
Even those who weren't his sons,
For he was hard and thin
And I heard he liked to have some fun.
He had the best horses in Zionville,
And he rode with the finest tack.
He'd whoop and holler up the hills
And raise more hell coming back,
And he was often seen
Sitting at the Bull Dog Cafe
When he should have been
Out in the fields for the day.
His father left him a hundred acres,
A team of mules, and enough cash
To keep the place for forty years,
If he didn't sit on his ass.
But he preferred liquor to work,
And a game of cards to a sweat,
With women he really made a mark,
And he liked a good fight you can bet.
The land he sold off piece by piece
Until forty acres were left,
And then he was not half so free
To run the hills and risk his neck.
So he stayed up on the farm
And kept it neat as a pin,
Though he'd go from time to time
Just to keep the wildness in
To his old haunts
Like the Bull Dog Cafe
To satisfy his body’s wants,
Though it is fallen and buried today.
It's true his given name was James,
But he had the nerve of a Bantam cock,
So he earned and kept the nickname
Of Rooster, for he was of fighting stock.