The mourning doves, the crows, the gulls take turn holding the island above water by circling. In this motion this way gravity can’t go straight down. This way a breeze can still push across, light is funneled to the tin roofs and branches for resting. Underneath, the wingless walk the mud roads bayside to beachside. Almost all the trees are gnarled pine, the houses pink blue brown yellow boxes on stilts stealing a good share of the lots. Sand is everywhere, makes our skin raw with grit and salt, gets into everything. Then the mourning doves make their back and forth low whistle, and the island rises a little, and light seeps into the water from here to the cars on the bridge.
I’m looking for the dead trees, what our drought has taken so far. Spring now, everything either blooming or greening except the sides of some dogwoods that took on stroke when their roots couldn’t get to water. And the late blooming maples and sourwoods—I keep waiting for them to prove.
We’ve had our rains, just not enough this winter. There was flooding in places a week ago, and a night with wind so strong, I thought all the trees would come down and the ridge would be a field of splinters and needles of pine. Thunder shook the house, too. But seldom the thing you fear happens the way you expect.
It was when I drove to b town, I saw where a red oak had tipped out in a field, full-branched leafing atop the grass, the roots out of their clay. Night before, lightning turned once to sizzle blue across the skylight; I knuckled onto the covers. But the red oak in the field had nothing to hold in that air and really, the covers weren’t much, and the oak hadn’t concern for lightning or the wind that came with. It was in need of water, took its chances, dug roots, welcomed the storm.
Lifted Over the Woods is from Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets at the beginning of line seven in sonnet number four. Read that line of his and held onto it for some days.
The cedar is getting to be a rangy green, and me, I want to go under that cloud over there, make my run up the mountain in its slow shadow, roots and rocks raising my knees. I’ll fall out on the other side like I’m supposed to with breath in the ache for the next cloud to come along.
Mud dries on the dog’s neck a sway, curl, clouding up sunflower head, ripe and river-brown across a black patch of ditch.
Saw the dust come up in the wheel, cloud curl down from the sky. Couldn’t hook the two together passing the tin barn, field, up mountain, up, the bull cloud running, they been gray all day and white, covering, the wind carrying. Had to get home, so much work to do.
This morning a pair of hawks battle the crows. And us, we start with firewood burning, with coffee making, bundled up, getting a sense of the treeline and the paths underneath to cut clear so we can wander before spring hides the earth.
Later is a greenhouse roof to put on—all outside things have to get done before summer when the heat and the bugs will be too much.
But yesterday, it was sun bright and cool. The buzzards came up from a tree, a whirlpool of wings, surveying for dead. This morning, hawks and crows, stopping us from doing what we thought.
This morning, my back is sore from pushing wheelbarrow loads of wood up a ridge. I had hoped the wood dead, ready for burning, two trees my neighbor and I had found, one tree leaning into the other, the tops of both rotted out. But the weight of wood said different—there were rows of green for holding water I could not split out with the axe. We need firewood for the rest of winter, dry or not, so I picked the vines of poison oak off the bark and wheelbarrowed uphill, slipping on leaves without falling. Once I reached the truck, I leaned down, pulled the ground air in until the ache left me and I could lift wood onto the truck bed. There is nothing like the smell of cut wood—dirt and sap split along plowing lines packed tight in the heart, like the atom at the center of the earth, at the center of a seed opened. I got home and Tina said I looked happy, but I couldn’t explain all of it then, my love, so I am writing this to you.
To look up is to see the blue where there was only cloud, is to find color in the fallen leaves on Cherty Ridge, is to catch sight of the slight wind turning. Still, clouds pig along the horizon like Robert Dana wrote and I heard him read.
Mandelstam wrote if the song is sung truly, from the whole heart, everything at last vanishes. Dana’s words have stayed with me unvanished, though they disappear at times, then return to me full of the forgetting.
The shadows on the ground come from the trees, a gray black given and broken where ice was just the day before, what little ice we got from the cold. Three days of burning out rounds of wood seamed with ants while people spun tires off black slicks in the road, useless. We didn’t, stayed, worked against the plunge the wind made to carry us. Then we woke up exhausted and not gone.
When I split the rounds, black ants fall out groggy, the earth shaky, not even the winged ones able to fly. Not enough warmth to the air to rise on and snow coming tomorrow. They’d eaten their way into the rings of heartwood, clung to the white seams of their passage.
I was on the roof yesterday cleaning the chimney. The sun had finally made it out and I looked west at Cherty Ridge—gray, brown, white with a row of hill pines before the dead steep. It was warm out, and I thought, winter is almost done. Oh, it will linger into April, but I was thinking of where time was a few months ago, where it would be. In between was where I stood on the roof, brushing down soot, anchored. I was the anchor or time was or the work I was doing or the sun already shifting back or even the wind you would not suspect, but it swirled me in place and the trees, too.
This day begins with thunder above mist. Every so often a field of light flickers. One time in high school, I set fire to a shallow pit in the west pasture, had friends over, and the wind whipped so strong against us, sparks flew and flew. The sparks calmed but didn’t fall. They floated above the grass and I thought the whole field might catch. No one else worried since it wasn’t anything of their fathers’.
Winter, the sparks like dragonflies in summer where I stepped to the field’s edge and stopped, unable to cross through, not wanting to disturb the quilted flight pattern. Sparks were just pops of wood lifted, carried, but their movement was the movement of dragonflies. I’d thought it was all about having glass wings, but it had more to do with wind, its roll above grass, about finding rhythm just above gravity’s plunge.
Every so often this morning, a field of light, flicker, then thunder, where the hawk that stays close to our home now had gone the week before, shrieking after something, mist after rain, a warning I couldn’t catch.
The pines are what hold now that the hardwoods have lost their leaves. In December the pines reappear, a second forest to pull the air, needle and weave the green line along with cedars we cherish, before the jump into blue. Where the hawk made yesterday orange-feathered, white and black checked. It went into the blue cold hot.
In our glass cabin, the doors, the floor, the rafters and the ceiling were made a cathedral of pines to live in.
The stand of pines just south have grown taller since last winter. When we go walking, we find scrubs under powerlines the drought has taken. Some of the knobby ones by the cabin are dead, too. I know them by their brown crowns and will cut them before they snap on their own and fall, will cure them for a year to make more rafters.
We cherish cedars because they can do without much water. Because insects don’t like their skin—we wish we had the skin of cedars—because the gray trunks are the rooted sky of our winter, because they fill the sky just enough to keep our home tucked back from the road into the woods.
Yet the pines are what I see most of. Always in December, their forest within the hardwood forest essential, what I had forgotten existed.
Cold rises through the floor. The red leaves hold onto the dogwood in the wind. This morning is firewood gathering, water pouring, filling enough jugs so we get through to the warming in a few days. And wrapping the outside tank in towels so the spigot won’t bust, putting on long handles knowing everyone up north would think a day like this one just fine, not a bother. Later we’ll put your aunt’s windows around the winter garden, slant them like a teepee. We’ll cradle in arms of water oak, bring the cat inside, bundle ourselves in covers your grandmother quilted. The moon is setting early in the trees.
The rains showed up like they do here in December, wave after wave and our drought broken. When it first fell, that water, I was putting blue tarps on the saws and lumber and firewood. It speckled me and the earth and I could breathe again. I had forgotten how in the drought.
William Christenberry passed right before the rains. His photographs of buildings and what comes of them over time I’ve been drawn to in part because my father has spent a life trying to preserve the shacks and stores and signs of his youth. My father was also born in the 1930s. In July, he had the old town depot moved from one field—where the depot was backed up to a pond and rotting—to the field of the highest land he owns. The moving—my daughter and I were there to see it and help—was quite a spectacle with the EMC workers in their buckets lifting up powerlines and traffic blocked from entering dirt roads and fences cut to weave that building through, get it to its new place where it frames the field as if it has always been there or having been moved around, finally has its home.
In part because there’s something in Christenberry’s work, what he was getting at about the South, I, too, am looking for. He said in an interview he didn’t have a nostalgia for the South of the past. He saw instead a poetry and poignancy in what he photographed and sculpted.
The big trees are dying my brother told my father and all I could think of were those South Georgia pines, roots gnarled in the earth, just a little older than my father was. Those pine branches had grown so tall, they kept their own stars, pulled the sky into place. I was down visiting, my father and I walking, telling each other what we knew.
Around Augusta, the smoke from the fires in the mountains was keeping the horizon away from the sun. Back home, my neighbor was holding on till spring to see which of his plants—all that time and money—would trick death into bloom. Another neighbor’s well went bust. But the water authority said they’ve got plenty of water for now. Water restrictions in effect. No burning, and yet the land is burning. The cows on my father’s land have been going through the bales, and not enough to last the winter. So many people have told me, they’ve not seen this, nothing like this, never this dry for this long.
So the weatherman talks about future rain like it’s god given. He’s finally got religion, the promising kind of just you wait and see. There’s a pattern flip, though not in our prayers, in the number of days of waiting—over sixty now—in the hawk winging off the powerline cause she can’t quit, and the frogs and lizards dried out in the sand.
I’m sure the weatherman will be proven true. But my father and I walked past the cotton field defoliated with no water to wash the chemicals into the dirt. All that cotton like snow never going to melt, what Bob Wills sang of, his window facing south, like what I’d seen in Massachusetts when I visited in October. So we slipped through the dust like it was the water we needed. Along the edge of the field, trying not to breathe it in too deep. All we could do.
We were leaving Oneonta, car packed, heading from a parking lot to the highway 231 light, and from there up roads that rivered north when we heard one of our closest friends had passed, though close doesn’t put it right. But since we could not see him and because grief belonged with us now, we took him along.
To the Smokes, Ohiopyle, and Berkshires. He thought sunsets were too redundant to be adored, so we took extra time watching the sun burn down the sky. At every restaurant we said his name so the tables next to ours would hear him being called, and he would be in the silverware dropped from napkins picked up, the jokes told, received, everything and everyone that drifted in and out of place.
I ate burgers, sausage, steaks, all the foods he loved, in his honor, knowing he’d utter Hot damn! about something he really liked. Unexpected, he set hot damns where they should go with an easy breath beforehand and everyone’s laughter afterward.
I conjured what he might say of Kutztown, Mill Run, Ashfield. I called up the hoarseness of his voice at Robinson’s Point and on Sparks Lane, the Youghiogheny, the Deerfield, so he would be in my memory everywhere, so I would always hear the world through his timing. Each death comes at you differently, and his has been about the wish to reverse these rivers long enough to take them south and catch him home, coming downstairs to give his greeting.
I want to thank the editors at Zone 3 for selecting my story “Shiner” as the 2016 Zone 3 Fiction Award winner. The story appeared in their spring issue and can also be read online at the link above.
There were simple things to do once we got home—pour water from the tank to make sure it was clear so we could use it. Check the house for squirrels or mice that may have found a way in. Tina found tomatoes and butterbeans, basil still growing in the garden despite the drought we thought we’d left to September. November, and the number of days of no rain will soon reach fifty. Only one dogwood is a deep red down west, and the small tomatoes in the garden red—you have to look for color among the burnt brown. Meanwhile, someone has been hammering south in the distance. That sound, tight, carries thirst, rattles leaves until the wind falls back into pockets of stillness, the creek bed, ditches. Without realizing, I have followed and left my body for good.
At Robinson’s Point, the crow fishleaped to the other mountains that crossed out the horizon with yellow. I told Tina in January it was the year of yellow because I’d chosen a yellow journal to write in. Hard to believe the journal was almost done. Hard to believe everywhere we looked, the world had become this color. Then the crow peaked and rounded toward us.
A front this weekend will brush the yellow to the floor—a drought—the leaves won’t hold branch. I thought we left such weather in Alabam but things don’t leave you. Like a poet read last night at Bryant’s homestead—You can go out that way except it’s the way in.
The distance between two points is a spinning thing, though it often looks as if you’re going in a straight line. Which is the reason why at Walden Pond a few days back, the swimmers swam out and we sank our hands in so warm we knew, you could swim the water clear and clear your mind of everything except the one action it took, the one breath repeated to get across.
It was a while back when I heard the first drums and horns. I was leaving the gym and across 75 the Oneonta marching band was practicing. This was early August before school started. Then last night after a trip to Auburn to hear my wife read poems about walking sticks and rivering and housebuilding and how red clay glows peach, I was on the south porch watching our tree limbs bend from where they stood—that was their welcome home to us, their Good to see you back. This after we woke up in Auburn hours earlier, the room so dark it was hard to know the morning. I kept shutting my eyes. I missed the light of our glass cabin—it’s seldom when we need to turn on lamps in the day—and I’d forgotten what it was to live constantly under tungsten, how artificial the morning is without the sun. But that was hours ago and I was on the porch figuring, the sun diving fast through oaks and maples at a point on Cherty Ridge where the branches leafed the light before it reached us. There’s no harshness this time of year when you look into the setting sun, and I wondered how long it’d been since I was able to open my eyes in late afternoon and breathe. At the end of June, the center of summer, the sun had gone as far northwest on Cherty as could. That light blazed through the west glass wall. So it had to be sometime April, early April, when the sun was at the same point on Cherty as now. I kept narrowing time’s movement by the different weather—April, wet, cool, the dogwoods budding; September, windy, parched, the sun flat—then I heard gunshots. Hunters. They’d driven up after work to figure the land before deer season. Once they stopped, I heard drums I thought was their echo. But the sound carried from where the Mustangs play football Friday nights in Pinson Valley down our ridge. All through Pinson Valley are games and marching bands on Fridays and I thought of James Wright’s poem about the beginning of August in Martins Ferry, the suicidal bodies on the football field, the women, pullets, dying for love and the gray faced men and their furnaces. How easily that place carried here with the drums quelling the dry-hot, calling the cooler air to us. Forget time. I had figured other things that afternoon I cannot remember to write. But they’ll circle back from where I lost them until I see them new.
If you go to the US Drought Monitor, Alabama, the map says a section of our county is abnormally dry and the other half in a moderate drought. After all that August rain, the air has parched. High hot days, white clouds like cotton in your throat, then cooler nights as the sun prepares us for winter. Thirst stays with you. Wakes you up in your sleep. Becomes its own kind of fever that the trees know, especially poplars turning yellow-brown. They weren’t made for withstanding upper ridges. You’ll find poplar color in flashlight dust, and pollen from ragweed caught in ridge seams floating around—there’s no place to settle, not even in stars. All of September has been like this.
I know it by the growth in the trees, especially the maples that I left standing. And I know it by the branches of the hickory and red oak that carry the clothesline. The wrap of the strings around the bark has settled in. The branches have overlapped. Where I cut trees for firewood for a view of Cherty Ridge, they’ve come back with scuppernongs and briars to hold the dirt on our hill. So many toads this year I have to be careful where I walk at night, and all day, on the way to the red feeder, the hummingbirds clip our ears. We’re as familiar to them as grass. We might as well be wood. I know it by the swallowtails sitting on the downed purple plums when the afternoon gets cool. Their wings beat slow and black. And I know it in the mornings when Tina and I sit on the porch to whisper our stories and poems so we can tune them. All around the house and through it is that whispering. And the wind carrying. And the other thing . . . life is just starting. Three years in and the world here is new and beautiful.
We took the clothes in off the line over three days. A good rain got them once, then small sprinkles that didn’t do much. The broom sage sprouted, announcing autumn. I saw them when I was slinging the grasses around the garden, their stalks appearing where the other wildflowers had wired up to the sun and died. All of this since April in a small patch in front of the church-iron fence a man from Pitts welded into a gate for us.
I promise myself every spring, I’ll invent names for the blooms. I could use the book a friend loaned me, but I want to give them something else, a mark that marks them as ours when Tina and I go walking, taking the dog up the road. Like the pine-likes that’ll show up soon, so many, you’d think slash and shortleaf had taken over the field under the Alabama electric lines, but they’re not saplings at all. They’re pine-likes, a weed gone by winter. Pretenders. Who or what were they trying to fool?
The broom sage or sedge is green and purple stalked. It will turn brown in a month, sweep the colder wind to us. Small cherries sit just above their leaves jewel-like. Plums fall purple-red in the walkway, get mashed. The hydrangeas have kept busy rusting out their edges. And the dogwood leaves’ turn to pale yellow, like some blight, will turn orange-red. Drupe pokers of the sumac, red. The sourwood leaves—some of them red, too—are speckling black, a stain left by the storms.
I used to think the turning happened in August because of drought, and sometimes that is the reason for a turn. But we’ve had plenty of water. Enough to reverse the drought in July. Even with July’s heat broken, the gulf heat drifts up to us and languishes. The sun has changed course, is heading back across Cherty Ridge to catch December. We’re on that line now, summer pretenders.
Sometimes it is the shadow on the ground, quick, half-branched. A buzzard is up there. So I wait for the other shadow, its companion to come next, before I look up to the sky and try to find them, sweeping. It all depends on the sun, the angle of wing to light, and if the companion is along. Sometimes after the half-branch floats past the trunk of the red oak, nothing. Sometimes the sky black with buzzards.
I spent all day craving salt until a storm came up, and I wondered if lightning strikes would come across Cherty Ridge like bears in an argument, which happened a few days ago, another storm, two bears clawing up earth and sky until so exhausted, they disappeared. Always bears have marked the stars from the stoop where I’ve watched them, but in that lightning I saw bears, too. It’s like the dirt under the glass face of my watch. I spent the morning working in the clay loam looking for salt to give me strength, but my sweat was only water and each time I stopped to let it drip away, the seconds hand appeared to tick more slowly, less visible from where the dirt got under. Nothing is sealed in—not the face of the watch. Nothing is sealed out—not the sky. Where the grit and electricity come across one world seeps into another, bends into bear, becomes imperfect time.
It’s all sweat digging holes in the ground for a deck, our soil a clay loam for about three feet, then a fourth foot of broken-rock to chip at for hours. I can’t work past eleven and before then I’m on breaks, hurrying inside to the AC and fridge. I’m soaked, soaked in sweat that burned my eyes when I first started digging. Now the salt in me is gone. I tell myself, I won’t survive the apocalypse, and try to think of ice. I say the words cool water, try to think of winter. But my hands and wrists are numb from spearing rock bars and posthole diggers, numb as dead handle-wood and steel. I’m more body than mind. I want to believe in, Just keep going, but it’s getting harder to tell that lie.
I wish I could give you the shape of weather here. How stars at night get closer to the earth, almost as bright as the headlights coming down the hill and just as wavy, flickering. Or this morning with the cold sharp on my ears, and the new kitten running around digging nails into the quilts deep enough to catch my foot and make me flinch. My foot was some fish to him, a motion to pounce on and stop. But I couldn’t sleep after and came downstairs to restart the fire in vestal, the sunlight starting above the trees. For a moment, and I almost missed it, the sky was a lavender bent, making the trunks of oak birch-white. How a tree can change into another tree is something I hadn’t known before.
Winter for us is firewood and being grateful for the woodstove doing what it can with glass-wood walls that have no insulation. And every one of these days is a ritual of coffee and feeding the fire and finding drafts in the walls to patch. But I guess if I could put my hands on the weather, it would be what happened yesterday afternoon.
I washed my hands outside under the rain barrel, and as I returned to the cabin, the wind froze my fingers. I grabbed sawdust near the woodpile to absorb the water and came inside to get warm and the sawdust fell, a dusting. It felt like flakes of my own skin falling away dead, but it was water my skin had absorbed and the sawdust had taken, and the simple movement of my hands closing the door, then placed above the stove, hot air shooting up, that sawdust full of what the big storms released the day before yesterday stinging on the iron.
I want to thank the editors of the journal Zone 3 for publishing my story “Shiner” in their Spring 2016 issue. It’s one of the selections you can read online, and to purchase the full issue, follow this link. “Shiner” is about a son trying to figure out what to do after his mother swims out and disappears. It’s part of a collection of stories I’m working on called This Ditch Walking Love.
I want to thank the editors of Fiction Southeast for publishing my essay, “The Window Between,” as part of the Corner Post Series. The essay talks about the time between writing projects, when you recharge and the world around you becomes louder.
A week ago, middle of night, when the armadillos stopped scratching, I heard a ping in the watering can outside. It wasn’t raining and I thought, it was the tank we have, the tank was dripping from the spigot into the can, but in the morning, the pinging had stopped and the watering can wasn’t under the spigot. Dew, that’s what it was I told myself and forgot about it. Until yesterday when I went to water the small garden and was filling the can from the rain barrel and something, a clump, was in the bottom. I dipped it out with my hand swift and threw it on the ground. The skin of a mouse and down in the water swirling bits of fur.
Years ago I’d come home near the end of winter from college, and I was out at the shack my father had built for me to live in. It had become a storage space for my father’s furniture, my writings, for my best friend’s books and drawings he could no longer carry. On the bar was a coke bottle and down at the bottom in the last bit of black spit and coke, a mouse. Somehow the mouse had managed to climb up the green glass and get inside, become matted bone.
I cannot remember if it had been a dry winter in south Georgia. We’ve had rain enough in Alabam this spring, though it is now getting dry. But when I saw the mouse skin on the ground and the fur, all I could think was, how quickly we are without water. It was not those words—I can write it here, but yesterday, all I had was the feeling in the throat of thirst. And not disgust for picking up something dead. Why should we be disgusted by the dead? Or how something that wanted to survive got there? It was thirst and its insistence.
The wind through the trees is the river. We slept in the bed, the windows open. All night we dreamed of water rushing one ear louder than the other. Starlit, moon-glowed, setting us in the green leaves turning.
You will not get this day again, blackberry winter, the hawk flying over. In February, the junipers were spring-born. Now the cedar-apple rust galls have turned orange. I thought the galls, hanging from the ends of branches, were the seeds of cedars. I thought the hawk would come down eventually. The wind had to stop holding up its wings. But lost in my measuring was the thing-real.
There are more taken-down utility poles at Alabama Power. And my neighbor’s building a house, this one for his son. The scraps of wood they can’t use, I can. So I get up. I make the rounds, checking for a call, looking for wood. These have become salvaging days, a kind of divining, like begging a story from old words, figuring out how to make use of the discarded.
Meanwhile, the carpenter bees cut rounds in the eaves. I sit on the stoop to write and sawdust sifts over these words. These very ones. Sawdust is a little bit heavier than pollen. I don’t like carpenter bees chewing up the house wood, but I understand their want for a home. The only thing to stop them is if their body fails.
When I get to Alabama Power, I cut one pole 15 feet. Length enough to bury 4 and have the rest bear the corner of a deck, what I’ve built over and over—the motions of it, the thoughts of it—but not the real. The real is picking up the pole no one wants because it’s too gaffed from workers climbing to the transformer and lines. Because it’s ancient.
And yet, the pole will outlast me, preserved in better chemicals. I just have to get it in the truck, which takes a lot of summoning, hands on hips figuring, walking around delaying because the dead weight is always more than I can reason. At some point, I have to lift.
Sometimes lightning bugs are falling stars—a whir of light, then nothing in the branches. The wind comes through the branches sounding like Foot Creek swift-running after a storm, or a driver in the valley over Cherty Ridge I cannot see—they all carry the same endless echo.
Dogwoods down the hill white-blooming, maples red-pink, wild azaleas at the trunk of a saw tooth.
I did get the first tick of the year above my neck. Tickled. So I scratched. A mole or something else and that’s how I knew. Tina got the tweezers hot with a match, yanked it out on the first pull. Why I married you, I said. She said, Left a red dot, not a black one.
Finished the compost bin we’ll use this year by slicing open pine saplings and poplar and oak with a table saw. The poplar had a streak of purple through the center. Another piece was mottled with black lines. The best discovery of the day.
Then showers at the gym. We have a bathroom twenty minutes from our house. Doesn’t everyone want one of those?
Routine now, I said. I didn’t even think. Back home, the lightning bugs and stars flashed when I sat on the stoop. This morning, writing. After, divisions of work. Every moment a deep falling, time refusing to be put in order.
I came across the first snake, black except for a patch of white on its throat. I held the dog and tried to get her to see it. We were close but the dog didn’t know what I wanted. Then she sniffed—something was there. And the snake rattled its tail in the curl of a dry leaf, pretending to be dangerous. The dog didn’t bark and we got up and went on. There was that, too, and the sun’s warmth, the sun above us. Second walk, the dog pitched up the ground where the snake had been just so I would know.
So much light now, the days are about work—Tina and I getting in poles to extend the garden perimeter—until Thursday’s storm. On that day we talked hushed about the planting, uneasy for ourselves and our neighbors, who sent prayers to the sky—Don’t let someone get lost in a tornado spun down, someone on a road flash-flooded out. A wanderer under the sturdiest tree, roots bogged-in with rain. Or a body caught in a line of straight-line wind, the barrel-whistlers, trailer-tumblers.
But every time the weather unsettles, a spot on the newscaster’s map appears just east, then up in the northwest within hours. Damage to tell us of, and Those poor people—names sometimes given we will forget—to them, Those poor people is all we can find to say. It remains—knowing the warning and carrying the worry beforehand never stops what is to come.
One year lightning struck a tree at the edge of my father’s field. The tree fell on two of his cows, or maybe it was just the strike, and the cows, one a favorite brahma bull of my father’s, were too close. He had just seen them moseying under the thunder crackle—or cackle, depending on how you hear it. Maybe a storm was coming, maybe not. It did. My memory likes to switch the images, make up new what-happeneds in proximity to the old. A trick against boredom and a way of accepting you can’t truly know things outright.
My father was close to a strike once, said he felt as if he got struck by a wall. Sent him to the dirt. Blackout. Damn of a headache. I heard it different as a kid—he had a bald spot on the back of his head, and I told my friends lightning had struck him there. Just look if you doubt. Sent him to the dirt.
Then my father got up.
I remember walking behind him after I decided on my version of his story—me, only so tall and staring at that spot way up. Meaning, I had a lot of years of growing to do. Meaning, he was more than just my father—a part of him was myth now. I was reading about the Greek Gods then, and Zeus kept getting angry at the peanut farmers of south Georgia, throwing his lightning bolts down at this place, which was the boundary of the whole world to me. My father—though a mortal—had been slammed in the back of the head by Zeus, and he walked as if that strike was nothing of a worry. The gods either get you or they don’t. You’re either here or you’re no longer. I was simply proud to be my father’s son. But his survival made the idea of it tangible.
Whatever truth memory holds, it can’t be found in the exactness of things, but in the felt near-death, in the strike-at-the-physical, sorrow—yours or what someone was willing to tell and in the telling make it a part of you—there, even in a spot on a map a day late, it remains—at the heart of the worry and the warning carried forward, the evocation of having lived and lived through.
The wind started swaying things. The rain wanted to come in—our windows open—but we had waited all winter to open them, built our house to let flow through and, therefore, did not want to shut the hatches to the spit spit rain. The smoke clouds, for they were wispy, grayness, peeling the air—at once so far up until heavy—they touched dirt and floor, turned by sofa legs and the rot-chewed roots. I did not see, only laced branches along the back of the ridge. The clarity through them was lost. The thing is I didn’t know, didn’t have—never—the thing is nothing was permanent—except for the winding the wind was doing, not ready to fall into time, not watching for predictableness, the part of it I had to have to stand myself in shoes perpendicular with the floor. Around me were different lines, curves that beaded and frayed. Just draw them. Gliding, I told myself. Make words out of spit. But the nearest I came was a whistle back, thinking I’d break open clouds with my own smallness. I am not a good whistler. My teeth aren’t positioned right. My lungs shallow. What to do with the tongue when whistling? I have been over the mechanics, have shifted my jaw, and still the sound out of me is airy, barely, and yet the wind sung back. For a moment the air so cold, I thought it was late in December.
To stare out across the ridge now towards Foot Creek cutting sways and rocks from the bottom roots is to see pink and ochre along the white bark, a thickening of limbs, as if the fire in vestal, what we had boxed-in through winter, spilled into the top of a nearby hickory and caught the maple and the sawtooth and the next crown all the way to the rooted Foot while we slept.
The days lull us into believing nothing goes on. Then morning, and we have to recalibrate what we thought we knew. Memory has turned unreliable, useless, best discarded for what we take in, a breath barely held. As Seamus Heaney put it, Me waiting until I was nearly fifty to credit marvels.
Just like that, winter seems done for, the sun out longer, and the way we know a river here is by the clouds passing over for the vultures to eddy on. They come over Cherty Ridge in such large numbers, they must’ve huddled up in December, made themselves into a chimney tree to keep out the cold. Now the lifts of gulf wind unhinge their wings, and the dead branches spin, dissolve bird by black bird, turning the morning smoke from vestal back to the earth, the air in all its invisible carrying. The only thing left are the knuckled-roots where the old paths of water, ghostlike, have pooled and sunk. The vultures know the river up to follow, leaving us to run downhill.
Some mornings waking happens in a fury, trying to hold center with life. But the center juts, won’t be held, life always bigger than one imaged waking thing—smoke lift-dropping air by the ton outside the glass wall, and through the rolling-belly, house-wood shadowed and lit, vultures in pattern over a wash of cold green cedars and pines. Gone! Put the exclamation. And the house-tree-vulture-light, all specs of all tell me the same—Best you can do, get still enough to breathe.
I am in the clutter here, having wired together speakers for most of Sunday. My desk is full of wire and plier, cds, a computer, papers and pencils to fall to my catch, and the one blue knife my wife gave me.
There was one pine tree out in all the white parched limbs starved for leaves and rain, the top of the pine green, and it was just carrying on, swinging, swinging, the one live in all the dead. That was the waking of the day, that was the scratched sweep of the sky with green needle, that was the wind pulled back as far as it could go before shushing through.
It is always this point in winter when it gets hardest, the air in the house filled with wood dust, the red iron steam twisting off the kettle we placed on vestal to keep our skin and throats from drying. We huddle, stack wood on morning coals until it is time to go out for trees and cut their downed trunks into rounds, split apart the wide into smaller, then haul it all—wheelbarrow-full, truckload-full—from back of my neighbor’s house. He has dead oaks and dogwoods for us to take home. If they stay here, they rot. That’s not a bad thing for the land, he says, in the long run. But you need them. And we do. Another neighbor offered lumber scraps and food. It was cold out that day, still in the thirties, the sun having not yet found its step in the sky. I realized, he thinks we’re poor. And I did not feel shame except in the wrongness of it for I had choices in the matter he did not know of. He said he didn’t want what to go to waste, if he had what someone else could use. Thank you, I said for his words built around, the words themselves, an offering of kindness. It will change you living on tanks of water hauled in from the water authority instead of water pouring from a spigot at the ready, or counting piles of firewood you get from wherever you can—How many weeks before they are gone? I put myself here not to know by my hands but to live by them. Even here in the center of Alabama’s winter with the layering-on of clothes, with a house that won’t hold its heat, with my mind set on hibernation, there’s no escaping what has to be done. It just has to be done. Because you never know how long you have to make your own choices. Never sure how long you can live this free.
The earth bolts about where we can’t see the wind down in a gopher hole soaking up tunnels of rattler bones and dirt, the bedrock turning rivers, eel by fish, and not the other way. It is true that motion turns out trying to wring itself from itself, quick heat into cold dust, but motion also collapses in. Never stopping for long, never just one way, even the rocks staying unstilled.
There is no reflection of stars as we vanish into winter—too much light rises from the ridges. We are surrounded in a dull glow from inside our dark spot. But maybe if we lived by a lake we could find stars there, the lake having soaked up night to become a deep-mirrored glass. To jump into that water would be to make the first circle, would be to remake the sky with us in it.
When we kicked our feet from the stoop, half a dogpaddle at the wind, pushing the sun away. When the sun came back having lost its gravity from the other side of our root and dirt—this is it, ten acres, all in the world we have, will ever, will ever need or want—that’s when the ball got swung over the power lines, figuring its way over the limbs. I’m not sure which one of us tossed it up, but the ball got caught in wave after wave of not looking for the ground.
When we filled vestal with wood, and the smoke spilled into the branches. When we waited out the hours, spent time while the sun got heavy. Before we could do another paddle, before the wind could do another push, before these acres could turn like a top about to wobble. Then
Let the stars show up, you said.
We made our legs be still.
If the ball ever comes down in the broom sage, you said. If it gets any colder.
I don’t want to go inside, I said.
So you wrapped the throw on your legs warmer and finished off your honey-lemon-bourbon and pointed out a pattern of stars, the one you had drawn to keep in your memory not to keep in but to unlock, this time before I knew you, a hunter with a starred belt and sword, his bow and arrow aiming at a bull. When a satellite whizzed across, what got picked up by your eye, you followed it, told me of that, too. Whatever the sky shakes loose and sends.
Sometimes I miss birches, the stretch of them white like long legs of snow showing off their knee-dirt and black-gnarls. There are all these things in the world a friend told me she was told you could never write of again. Too much already has been written about birches.
But inevitably the eye falls on paper bark bleached and curled, or a photograph, or if lucky, you happen by a grove of birches and breathe them down into the vocal box, that grove, yours, mixing with the sound of birches where the wind cuts through to make winter. And how can you not write of something inexhaustibly a part of you?
Even here in the South we carry winter, if only for a few months, though our birches tend to come from the paper current of our rivers, made of mud and straw and peach light and bluing gnarls. Think of a run, how the water rolls, strikes the bank roots and takes the rocks and dirt from them downstream. Think of the first note of a word, how breath rolls, strikes the vocal box, then lifts upwards into the tongue and teeth. In every sound, birches forked at the wind.
Not the runners with legs stabbing, mouths gaping at the wind they started. It is, instead, about sliced air, how it was when I ran bone and muscle into momentum to split stillness from itself.
Sometimes crossing the surface of things is enough. Like that thin snake, yellow and gray streaked, winding across the rain-soaked road. When you pushed on its tail, it sprung away, gaining traction through the back and forth glitter curve of its body.
And when our dog ran for the ball, the ocean chasing, too, everything she did was lope, slice, and lift—thought pieced apart by doing, so nothing would be left to consider.
The moon got held up last night in the still-jigging clouds, what remained of a storm, enough so that the stars found themselves unsure of this world and which way to spin it. The pinholes, however, bore through me where the clouds opened, sure of their brightness on the ground and through each layer of earth and me, setting-points of a compass. All I did was turn and choose a direction—a step away from, a step into. Where exactly? Which is the question to ask once you get past why and how and what must happen to find a grounding in the dark when every night stars change their mind.
The peonies, weeks old and having failed to open fully, their outer petals have dried pink-brown, left us the sweet smell of spring-rot at the beginning of winter. I convinced the lady beetle on one floral axis to crawl onto the flathead driver and took her outside to the sawtooth after having tried to pick her up and by accident pinched her. A sturdy, slow wobbler, she crawls up the branch towards. Even the mosquitoes are trying to come back in this warm swell of air. December. How much the sun matters. Our tilt towards it, our tilt away. In that push and pull the magnetic nothing that is everything I tell myself—do not live except in the tilting luck of breath, sleep, the climbing of trees over the ridge, the sinking of clouds.