The hunt

The snow that hid between furrowed rows

collected somber whispers of early light

and lifted just enough of nighttime’s shroud

to make the going there a thing a man

could do.

……….. He stood a while, confused, unsure

of where to take a step.  “I’ve lost my way,”

He thought, “I’ve got to get a grip.”  He moved

his hands along the rifle stock to shift

the weight and ease the load.


………………………………………. “I’m here.”

He heard his father’s voice again, still soft,

“I’m here.”


Then, from the gray, a form emerged

and walked ahead as if to lead the way.

He knew this form from years of watching it:

The heavy shoulders and hunting coat of red

and black; the heavy boots that marked a gait

as sure as it was long; the easy smile;

the eyes of welcome warmth; the air of grace.


“I’m lost,” he said aloud.  “And I’m afraid.”


The form, familiar, stood atop a rise

and turned to him.  “You’re where you’re meant to be.

You’re mine: You’re strong.  We’ll hunt this land for years

to come.   I’m just across this other side,

down out of sight, but you’ll still know I’m here.

You stay.  Hunt here for now.  Time comes, you follow me.”


The sunlight broke the crest as he watched his father walk away.

Thanksgiving Day

Beyond the steam that gently hung above

the plates of mashed potatoes, yams and corn,

she saw her mother’s face.  The misty veil

could not disguise the sorrow in her eyes

or hide the pain that creased her lips

and set her jaw in rigid, stoic lines.


She whispered, “Mom” and reached to touch

her hand.  “Are you OK?”

……………………………. A tired smile

came slowly in reply, then nothing more.


She took the plate of turkey, passed it through

the steam toward her mother’s empty dish.

She held the offer longer than she thought

she should, then put it down and looked around

the table: all of them were watching her.

Her children looked away.  Her sister wiped

a tear.  Her husband held her gaze – his way,

she knew, to give her strength.  But no one ate.


Her mother said, “It isn’t right,” and turned

toward an empty chair as if to ask

for help remembering the thing that still

was missing – caught herself and shook her head.


She thought she heard her mother sigh, and took

her hand again.  “What is it, Mom?  What’s wrong?”

She drew her breath in hard and asked,

“Is it because he’s gone?”


……………………………. Her mother smiled.

“Oh no – he’s never gone.”  She smiled again

and said,  “He loved this day the best.  And how

he loved this meal!”  She stopped to scan the food

as if to find the thing she thought astray.


She caught her mother’s glance.  “Everything is here.

You’ve made it just the way he liked it, Mom.

Now can we eat?  It is what Dad would want.”


“No, wait!”  Her husband stood and pushed his chair.

“I think I know the missing piece.  Hang on.”

He walked into the living room — a pause –

then came the call:  “The Lions have the ball.”

He sat again and, with a wink, he said,

“The game was always on.  Please pass the rolls.”


Her mother stood and moved toward the door.

She turned, came slowly back, then leaned to kiss

his head.  “I s’pose –” she stopped, then laughed and said,

“you know, I s’pose they’ll lose again this year.”

The view from the grave

The prairie broke in a range of hills with sides

of layered rock and crests as flat as the plains

below.  We left the highway and headed north.

The paved road turned to gravel and, as it wound

its upward course, the gravel turned to dirt,

the dirt road narrowed, the piney forest closed

along the sides and the fading road became

a two-track.  When the two-track ended at

a washout, we stopped the truck, climbed out and walked.

The hillside where the road had ended fell

away and, taking it, we cut across

a valley of cactus flowers growing wild,

ascended the farther slope and found a stand

–a thicker, richer stand–of trees.  The air

was cool and moist among the fragrant boughs,

and pausing to rest and cleanse our throats of dust

we heard the flawless empty spaces sigh

a song of solitude and sweeter days

of untamed dreams and boundless chance.  We thought

aloud how such an open place was as near

to paradise as we had ever seen.  An hour

we walked the quiet hills for nothing more

than feeling them alive beneath our feet.

And then we saw it.

……………………… A tombstone, a modest stone,

with letters nearly lost to the wear of rain

and wind and snow.  My brother read the name.

“It’s Mrs. Otis Tye,” he said.  “She died

in January, 1882.”


“Out here?” I asked.


………………………. “I heard about them once,”

said he.  “The Tyes were settlers.  One winter night,

when Otis was away from home, the team

of horses got away and lost in snow.

Frontier gals being a hearty bunch, Ms. Tye

went out that night to fetch them back alone.”


“You gotta love a woman like that,” I said.


My brother nodded.  “Crying shame they gave

her his name on the stone.  She earned her own.”


“The storm?”


………………. “He found her on this very spot.

The house is standing yet, in part at least,

about a mile from here.”  He waved his arm

toward the east.  “It’s made of rocks from these

same hills.”


……………. We stood alone among the rocks

and swallowed tepid water from our canteens–

a silent toast of sorts–and thought about

the turning of the circle.  Frontier graves

were simple things:  Her wooden box had long

returned to the earth from which it came, and she

was sure to follow close behind.  We knew

the life the hills had given her, the life

that fueled the fire in her eyes, was now the life

that filled these scented grasses, held these trees

against the prairie winds and helped to close

the sacred hoop.  We knew that it was right.


I saw him squint toward the muffled calls

of far-off turkeys.  “Want to go?” I asked.


He shook his head and turned his face to feel

the arid winds that blew across the plains

and rose against the rocks.  “Let’s stay a while,”

he said, then smiled.  “The air’s so clean, so clear,

it is amazing what I see from here.”

The river

The water starts so fast it tears the womb,
the Earth, from which it bubbles free and runs.
It cuts the soil from banks so sharp they trick
the feet and make the going there unsure.
It rolls the pebbles hard and pushes them
toward ideal, so smooth and clean and bright
they shine as gems so long as they are wet.
The river then is beautiful and fierce
and all that tries to turn its course is swept
away and torn apart and left as waste.
The water slows and widens soon, too soon.
The banks are gentle, firm, and rich with growth,
and walking, sitting, dreaming there bring joys
so sweet you think you’ll stay and never leave.
The river does not stem its flow for love.
It carries forward, growing broader, more
reflective in its gently rippled face.
At last the river’s winding course is done.
The river joins the greater body, lake,
or sea and is a single thing no more.
I’m going out to walk the river’s shore;
I’ll only stop to fish a meal or two
(and wade the shallows for a while, I may):
I know I won’t be gone long–you come too.

Baptism and benediction on the Brule

The trout ran strong and swift, the stream ran cold

and clear, and both ran past a pair of felt-

soled boots.  The angler in the boots stood long

alone and watched the water rushing by.

The hair beneath his hat was graying, but

the hands that held his pole were still as thick and

hard as when they guided softer hands

and smaller boots down muddy banks to take

that first enchanting step on mossy rocks.

He turned and looked at tiny, gleaming drops

of sunlight dancing upstream where the boy

had caught a rainbow on a fly he’d tied

himself.  Around the bend, a little way

beyond where he could see, was where the boy

had caught his first and found his private joy.

He watched the water, waiting, aching to see

the colored pebbles that were not what they

seem rise through swaying shafts of light and hold

near ripples, glitter-capped and quick, until

they tap the surface, take a bite and flash

away.  He watched the Mayflies lift and fall

on gossamer wings that fluttered helplessly

against the breeze until they failed.  The frail

and floating insects, their genetic task

complete, returned the river’s gift.  He looked

across to where the boy and he had sat

to wait for countless suns to sink and call

the trout to rise.  There, in the cool of grass

still soft, still moist, still shaded by the trees,

the words were easy.  Fears had fallen there

and drowned beneath the current.  Dreams were born

and carried high on summer winds.  So sweet

was one, it swept away the dreamer–yet

no sweeter than the one that brought, and kept,

the other here.  The angler bowed his head

toward the stream and, smiling, waded in.


The glinting arch of sun on steel that split

the air absorbed the life of muslces warmed

with vernal heat and drove the axe head hard

against the wood.  Good blocks of oak he split,

and sweetly scented pieces lay asprawl,

prepared to yield their heat, their meat, to him.

The hands that held the axe were supple still,

though course to touch.  Their strokes were sure and quick,

and driven by the joyful ache of earnest love.


She said, “It’s time for me to go.”


………………………………………He stopped.

“What’s that?  I thought you had some things to do.

You know:  Some things to do up at the house.”


“All done.”  She moved her eyes away from his

and whispered, “I’m all packed.”  She saw the axe

he held and laughed.  “What’s wrong with you?  You know

how fast the chainsaw is–”  He dropped the axe.

She watched it fall, and in the worn-out grip

she glimpsed the man as she had not before.

She paused, then set herself and said again,

“It’s time for me to go.”


……………………………“The corn’s about

to come.”  He knelt as if collecting wood

and tried to steady failing legs.  He bowed

his head to hide his face and gasped against

a searing pain that started low and spread.

“This could be our best crop.”


………………………………….“I have to go.”


The hollow slap of sleet on pitted steel

that lay where it had fallen rose unheard

and died above the nearby fallow fields.


The untouched handle, cracked and splintered, sunk

a little deeper in the mud.  The blocks

of wood, unstacked, unburned, and brown and soft,

now fouled the cutting winds with fetid mold.

The muscles warmed with vernal heat grew still

and cold in the grieving ache of earnest love.

A quiet light

The city lights looked coldly in at her

through jagged lines of the frost that gathers on

the panes in empty rooms.  What kept her eyes

from giving back the gaze was the naked bulb

that hung above her head.  What brought her to

that creaking room was dread–and aging locks

that fastened only when they turned just so.

She stood, at a loss amid the dark decay,

and worked to keep the night beyond the door.

And having scared the hallway rats with her steps

(a willful weight to each) in coming here,

she tried to scare whatever ears may lurk

in the shadowed streets below in stomping off.

The city nights have sounds–the highway’s whine,

the sirens’ scream, the cries of angry men–

that strike severely against a mother’s ears.

The locks are hurried to guard the inner night

against the outer, and tender songs are sung

to guard the children’s ears against the din.

She feared they might become easy neighbors

with it, and stroked their sable curls to ward

off any dreams the outer sounds inspire.

A light she was to no one beyond this room

where now she sat:  a quiet light amid

the gaudy glare, a gently warming glow

against the flashing neon ice.  She pressed

her lips against their tiny mouths, one kiss

to each of two faces scented with soap.

And then she slept.  The child closest to her

turned over in the bed, disturbing her,

and she shifted, but the day hung long

and heavy, weary on her and still she slept.

One young woman–alone–can’t keep a home,

a family, a dream, or if she can,

it’s thus she does it on a winter night.