Tom McAfee Discovery Feature: Carol Potter
Featuring the following poems:
- The Children Who Haven’t Stopped Moving
- Releasing the Herd
- That Not So Certain Feeling
- News from the North
- Diving the Shoals
- Tales of a Four-Legged Land
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
The door of the next hotel was open. A narrow carpet of light extended across the sidewalk, a sign Laurie took as a welcome. She said bonsoir and explained to the woman behind the desk that she wanted a single room.
An Interview with William Kennedy
The full text of this interview is not currently available online.
There’s something in our makeup that is fascinated by the lawbreakers who carry things to extremes, by “extremity” in our attitudes toward life, and that’s what my books have come to represent, to me anyway: the treatment of characters in extreme conditions.
Children Asleep In A Treehouse
Today Will Be A Quiet Day
“I THINK IT’S the other way around,” the boy said. “I think if the quake hit now the bridge would collapse and the ramps would be
He looked at his sister with satisfaction.
“You are just trying to scare your sister,” the father said. “You know that is not true.”
“No, really,” the boy insisted, “and I heard birds in the middle of the night. Isn’t that a warning?”
The girl gave her brother a toxic look and ate a handful of Raisinets. The three of them were stalled in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
That morning, before waking his children, the father had canceled their music lessons and decided to make a day of it. He wanted to know how they were, is all. Just—how were they. He thought his kids were as self-contained as one of those dogs you sometimes see carrying home its own leash. But you could read things wrong.
Could you ever.
The boy had a friend who jumped from a floor of Langley Porter. The friend had been there for two weeks, mostly playing ping-pong. All the friend said the day the boy visited and lost every game was never play ping-pong with a mental patient because it’s all we do and we’ll kill you. That night the friend had cut the red belt he wore in two and left the other half on his bed. That was this time last year when the boy was twelve years old.
You think you’re safe, the father thought, but it’s thinking you’re invisible because you closed your eyes.
* * *
This day they were headed for Petaluma—the chicken, egg, and arm-wrestling capitol of the nation—for lunch. The father had offered to take them to the men’s arm-wrestling semi-finals. But it was said that arm-wrestling wasn’t so interesting since the new safety precautions, that hardly anyone broke an arm or a wrist any more. The best anyone could hope to see would be dislocation, so they said they would rather go to Pete’s. Pete’s was a gas station turned into a place to eat. The hamburgers there were named after cars, and the gas pumps in front still pumped gas.
“Can I have one?” the boy asked, meaning the Raisinets.
“No,” his sister said.
“Can I have two?”
“Neither of you should be eating candy before lunch,” the father said. He said it with the good sport of a father who enjoys his kids and gets a kick out of saying Dad things.
“You mean dinner,” said the girl. “It will be dinner before we get to Pete’s.”
* * *
Only the northbound lanes were stopped. Southbound traffic flashed past at the normal speed.
“Check it out,” the boy said from the back seat. “Did you see the bumper sticker on that Porsche? ‘If you don’t like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalk.’ ”
He spoke directly to his sister. “I’ve just solved my Christmas shopping.”
“I got the highest score in my class in Driver’s Ed,” she said.
“I thought I would let your sister drive home today,” the father said.
From the back seat came sirens, screams for help, and then a dirge.
The girl spoke to her father in a voice rich with complicity. “Don’t people make you want to give up?”
“Don’t the two of you know any jokes? I haven’t laughed all day,” the father said.
“Did I tell you the guillotine joke?” the girl said.
“He hasn’t laughed all day, so you must’ve,” her brother said.
The girl gave her brother a look you could iron clothes with. Then her gaze dropped down. “Oh-oh,” she said, “Johnny’s out of jail.”
Her brother zipped his pants back up. He said, “Tell the joke.”
* * *
“Two Frenchmen and a Belgian were about to be beheaded,” the girl began. “The first Frenchman was led to the block and blindfolded. The executioner let the blade go. But it stopped a quarter inch above the Frenchman’s neck. So he was allowed to go free, and ran off shouting, ‘C’est un miracle! C’est un miracle!’ ”
“It’s a miracle,” the father said.
“Then the second Frenchman was led to the block, and same thing—the blade stopped just before cutting off his head. So he got to go free, and ran off shouting, ‘C’est un miracle!’
“Finally the Belgian was led to the block. But before they could blindfold him, he looked up, pointed to the top of the guillotine, and cried, ‘Voila la difficulté!’
She doubled over.
“Maybe I would be wetting my pants if I knew what that meant,” the boy said.
“You can’t explain after the punchline,” the girl said, “and have it still be funny.”
“There’s the problem,” said the father.
* * *
The waitress handed out menus to the party of three seated in the corner booth of what used to be the lube bay. She told them the specialty of the day was Moroccan chicken.
“That’s what I want,” the boy said. “Morerotten chicken.”
But he changed his order to a Studeburger and fries after his father and sister had ordered.
“So,” the father said, “who misses music lessons?”
“I’m serious about what I asked you last week,” the girl said. “About switching to piano? My teacher says a real flutist only breathes with the stomach, and I can’t.”
“The real reason she wants to change,” said the boy, “is her waist will get two inches bigger when she learns to stomach-breathe. That’s what else her teacher said.”
The boy buttered a piece of sourdough bread and flipped a chunk of cold butter onto his sister’s sleeve.
“Jeezo-beezo,” the girl said, “why don’t they skip the knife and fork and just set his place with a slingshot!”
“Who will ever adopt you if you don’t mind your manners?” the father said. “Maybe we could try a little quiet today.”
“You sound like your tombstone,” the girl said. “Remember what you wanted it to say?”
Her brother joined in with his mouth full: “Today will be a quiet day.”
“Because it never is with us around,” the boy said.
“You guys,” said the father.
* * *
The waitress brought plates. The father passed sugar to the boy and salt to the girl without being asked. He watched the girl shake out salt onto the fries.
“If I had a sore throat, I would gargle with those,” he said.
“Looks like she’s trying to melt a driveway,” the boy offered.
The father watched his children eat. They ate fast. They called it Hoovering. He finished while they sucked at straws in empty drinks.
“Funny,” he said thoughtfully, “I’m not hungry any more.”
Every meal ended this way. It was his benediction, one of the Dad things they expected him to say.
“That reminds me,” the girl said. “Did you feed Rocky before we left?”
“Uh-uh,” her brother said. “I fed him yesterday.”
“I fed him yesterday!” the girl said.
“Okay, we’ll compromise,” the boy said. “We won’t feed the cat today.”
“I’d say you are out of bounds on that one,” the father said.
He meant you could not tease her about animals. Once, during dinner, that cat ran into the dining room shot from guns. He ran around he table at top speed, then spun out on the parquet floor into a leg of the table. He fell over onto his side and made short coughing sounds.
“Isn’t he smart?” the girl had crooned, kneeling beside him. “He knows he’s hurt.”
* * *
For years, her father had to say that the animals seen on shoulders of roads were napping.
“He never would have not fed Homer,” she said to her father.
“Homer was a dog,” the boy said. “If I forgot to feed him, he could just go into the hills and bite a deer.”
“Or a Campfire Girl selling mints at the front door,” their father reminded them.
“Homer,” the girl sighed. “I hope he likes chasing sheep on that ranch in the mountains.”
The boy looked at her, incredulous.
“You believed that? You actually believed that?”
In her head, a clumsy magician yanked the cloth and the dishes all crashed to the floor. She took air into her lungs until they filled, and then she filled her stomach, too.
“I thought she knew,” the boy said.
The dog was five years ago.
“The girl’s parents insisted,” the father said. “It’s the law in California.”
“Then I hate California,” she said. “I hate its guts.”
The boy said he would wait for them in the car, and left the table.
“What would help?” the father asked.
“For Homer to be alive,” she said.
“What would help?”
She pinched a trail of salt on her plate.
“A ride,” she said. “I’ll drive.”
* * *
The girl started the car and screamed, “Goddammit.”
With the power off, the boy had tuned in the Spanish station. Mariachis exploded on ignition.
“Dammit isn’t God’s last name,” the boy said, quoting another bumper sticker.
“Don’t people make you want to give up?” the father said.
“No talking,” the girl said to the rear-view mirror, and put the car in gear.
She drove for hours. Through groves of eucalyptus with their damp peeling bark, past acacia bushes with yellow flowers pulsing off their stems.She cut over to the coast route and the stony grey-green tones of Inverness.
“What you’d call scenic,” the boy tried.
Otherwise they were quiet.
* * *
No one said anything else until the sky started to close, and then it was the boy again, asking shouldn’t they be going home.
“No, no,” the father said, and made a show of looking out the window, up at the sky and back at his watch. “No,” he said, “keep driving—it’s getting earlier.”
But the sky spilled rain, and the girl headed south towards the bridge. She turned on the headlights and the dashboard lit up green. She read off the odometer on the way home: “Twenty-six thousand, three hundred eighty three and eight-tenths miles.”
“Today?” the boy said.
* * *
The boy got to Rocky first. “Let’s play the cat,” he said, and carried the Siamese to the upright piano. He sat on the bench holding the cat in his lap and pressed its paws to the keys. Rocky played “Born Free.” He tried to twist away.
“Come on, Rocky, ten more minutes and we’ll break.”
“Give him to me,” the girl said.
She puckered up and gave the cat a five-lipper.
“Bring the Rock upstairs,” the father called. “Bring sleeping bags, too.”
Pretty soon three sleeping bags formed a triangle in the master bedroom. The father was the hypotenuse. The girl asked him to brush out her hair, which he did while the boy ate a tangerine, peeling it up close to his face, inhaling the mist. Then he held each segment to the light to find seeds. In his lap, cat paws fluttered like dreaming eyes.
“What are you thinking?” the father asked.
“Me?” the girl said. “Fifty-seven T-bird, white with red interior, convertible. I drive it to Texas and wear skirts with rick-rack. I’m changing my name to Ruby,” she said, “or else Easy.”
The father considered her dream of a checkered future.
“Early ripe, early rot,” he warned.
A wet wind slammed the window in its warped sash, and the boy jumped.
“I hate rain,” he said. “I hate its guts.”
The father got up and closed the window tighter against the storm. “It’s a real frog-choker,” he said.
In darkness, lying still, it was no less camp-like than if they had been under the stars singing to a stone-ringed fire burned down to embers.
They had already said good-night some minutes earlier when the boy and girl heard their father’s voice in the dark.
“Kids, I just remembered—I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?”
It was his daughter who spoke. “Let’s get it over with,” she said. “Let’s get the bad news over with.”
The father smiled. They are all right, he decided. My kids are as right as this rain. He smiled at the exact spots he knew their heads were turned to his, and doubted he would ever feel—not better, but more than he did now.
“I lied,” he said. “There is no bad news.”
The Object of Today's Lesson
A couple sit in a living room, drinking. The room is nicely furnished. There is art on the walls, books, etc. To the right rear of the stage there are French doors leading to a caged swimming pool. Only a small portion of the pool is visible. But one can see steps and the glitter of water. There is a bar set up in the corner. The woman sits on one end of a long couch, the man sits in a chair. Beneath the couch, on the other end, extending from beneath it and very visible is a dog’s tail. It is a large tail and completely motionless. In one corner of the room a small boy stands at an ironing table, ironing.
Betty: I never thought it would be this way.
Barry: You always wanted a dog. A dog, you’d say, every day for eight years. We need a dog. Our son was not yet a minute old. We didn’t even know if all his little parts were functioning yet, and you gasped, ‘We’ve got to get him a dog. Promise we can get a dog.’ You grabbed my hand and squeezed it. You practically broke my thumb. (Betty says nothing, sips her drink, looks at the tail.) The doctors stared at us. I remember it vividly, their eyes above the masks, staring.
Betty: I think he’s sick. He’s so listless.
Barry: $1,142 in veterinary bills. Not sick, never sick. Fine appetite, bright eye, firm stool, shining coat.
Betty: He lacks . . . devotion.
Barry: A little short on devotion. To say nothing of . . . a certain interest.
Betty: I don’t understand it.
Barry: How you longed for a dog. The times I’ve heard about those blessed dogs of your sacred childhood, Napoleon and Howdy and Whiskey and Don! My God!
Betty: I had a happy childhood. It’s in the past. You can’t touch it.
Barry: The past! (He laughs, looking delighted, even friendly) Why the past has brought us here tonight. I don’t suppose you ever reflect that this present, this life, if you prefer, is the ongoing conclusion to your precious past.
Betty: Life is one thing, Death is another.
Boy: Look, Mommy at this shirt. Perfect! Ten minutes.
Barry: It never occurred to me! Is that dog alive? He may not be alive.
Betty: He just ate.
Barry: (Sighing) Many an evening was ruined by talk about getting a dog. You dreamed about dogs. You smiled at dogs. Sitting in the car at a red light, if another car pulled alongside and that car had a dog in it you would smile at that dog.
Betty: I was a nice person. (Drinks)
Barry: Napoleon and Howdy and Whiskey and Don. It sounds like the Four Gospels. Jesus Christ never had a dog. I’m sure you’re aware of that.
Betty: Jesus Christ! (Pauses. Drinks.) I’m sure he had no earthly need of a dog.
Barry: I have no need of a dog either. The damn thing is depressing. He doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t even look at you. He has yet to achieve eye contact with a single member of this family.
Betty: Howdy put out a fire once.
Barry: So legend has it. What did he do? Step on an ash tray?
Betty: Whiskey saved me from drowning. He could also count.
Barry: Wasn’t he the dog who had the extra-terrestial experience? Didn’t he have peculiar white wafer-like marks on his tummy one evening after an episode of funny sounds and bright, moving lights? You were a teensy-tiny child, but you were not afraid because you had brave, good Whiskey in your room. (Betty nods) But . . . (Barry sighs) .. apparently it was not an extraterrestial experience, it was . . .
Betty: An alien invasion.
Barry: It was cancer.
Betty: Yes, cancer.
Barry: And your father had to shoot him.
Betty: It was love.
Barry: It was love because your father didn’t want anyone else to shoot him. He took the dog out and into a field behind your house and the dog ran around smelling the flowers and sniffing out rabbits and your father knelt and raised the gun to his shoulder and called Whiskey, Whiskey. . .
Betty: (Looking at the motionless tail extending from beneath the couch) Napoleon was part Rottweiler. One morning when I was in the fourth grade and waiting in the dark at the bus stop, a very suspicious looking man appeared. He had red hair and no shirt or shoes. Napoleon emitted a low growl and kept his body between me and it.
Barry: Him, not it.
Betty: Napoleon accompanied my father to church every Sunday morning and waited for him in the narthex.
Barry: Sing us a hymn, darling. (He shakes his head. Drinks. Betty is silent. Barry clears his throat and sings in a surprisingly good voice)
0 Lord my God When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
(Looks at his glass)
Boy: Do you have anything you want ironed, Daddy?
Barry: (Gazes at him for a long moment) Put away the ironing board, son. Get out your trucks. Get out that Lost in the Wilderness survival game. Let me ask you a question. Suppose you’re in the wilderness and you’re lost. Lost and alone. And you have no compass. (The boy unplugs the iron and winds up the cord) Would you know how to make a compass? (The boy shakes his head) You take a needle and a piece of silk .. .
Boy: Why would I have a needle, Daddy?
Barry: For Godssakes, you make a needle!
Barry: Now, you stroke the needle in one direction with any piece of silk. Then you rub the needle with oil collected by passing your thumb and forefinger over your forehead. Then you sus-pend the needle by two thin bits of grass formed into loops and you lo-wer it carefully into any body of still water. Care-fully (he is demonstrating this in pantomine over his empty glass) remove the support. The needle, floated by surface tension, will turn until it is aligned with the north and south magnetic poles. (He pauses, looks at the boy who is not looking at him) I learned that when I was your age, son, and do you know what?
Boy: (Somewhat nervously) What?
Barry: I never became lost in such a way that that knowledge was of the slightest use to me.
Boy: I’m going to take a bath now, Daddy. Good-night. Good-night, Mommy. (Kisses her)
Barry: Take a shower, son. (To his wife) Do you want another belt? (Boy exits)
Betty: I beg your pardon.
Barry: Another belt! It’s almost eight o’clock. Let’s get cracking here.
Betty: Is it eight o’clock? (She extends her glass to him) You used to call them dividends. You’d say, ‘Look I have a little dividend here’ or ‘Let’s not forget the dividend!’
Barry: (Going to the bar in the corner of the room and filling their glasses) Why does our son iron, please? I send my shirts out. You send your cocktail attire to the dry cleaners. (Betty spills some of her fresh drink on her jeans) Woops! There you go! What does the kid iron, really? There hasn’t been anything to iron in this family for years.
Betty: (Brushing at the spill with her hand) Some aprons I found of my mothers. Handkerchiefs. Bits and pieces.
Barry: And he irons them.
Betty: They’re nothing, all messy, and he makes them … right. (Abruptly) It’s a phase, don’t worry about it.
Barry: (Stares at her) I don’t like that school he goes to. They teach him silence, are you aware of that? He learned silence today in school.
Betty: That’s nice.
Barry: The teacher is instilling in them a desire to attain immobility, do you realize that? That was the object of today’s lesson. It’s my feeling that one achieves immobility soon enough, one doesn’t have to learn it in the first grade.
Betty: Just be quiet for a minute. Just don’t say anything for a minute, ok? (They look at each other silently) Do you hear something?
Barry: No. (There is a faint, slow, beating sound. Barry is immobile, holding his drink aloft with false enthusiasm) Why, this is wonderful! This is what it’s all about! Life is gradually disappearing. The room, little by little, is becoming empty. There is silence and then there is this! We are transcending the ordinary run of things. We are accomplishing something new. Our souls rejoice.
Betty: You just can’t do it, can you.
Barry: I do hear something.
Barry: The drip from the suspended oar.
Betty: (Sagging a little) No.
Barry: Who said that? Tell me and I’ll give you a kiss. (She is trying to listen. She bends her head, presses her hands together fiercely as though in prayer) You’re not going to guess, are you? Afraid you’ll stumble on the answer by some dreadful mischance. (They are silentt)
Barry: (Looking at the tail) The dog?
Betty: It’s the sound of his heart beating.
Barry: (Listening) My God, he’s managed to slow his heart beat. He’ll live forever at that rate. (Pauses) In this house. (Pauses) You must look at this in the most hopeful way you can, dear. All your other dogs died, but this one is going to live forever. (Betty puts her hands over her eyes) Does he ever do anything? Frolic, beg, kiss, weep? Gambol, fetch, growl? When he was a puppy he would regard us at least, upon occasion. That is, if we insisted. (Pauses) Does he swim? Does he cannon-ball? Does he retrieve coins in his teeth? Does he pee in the pool, tear the crotch from your panties, vomit on the Persians?
Barry: This is a nice house! That is a lovely pool.
Betty: It is a lovely pool.
Barry: Not used enough. Nothing used enough.
Betty: (Looking at the pool through the glass) I think I’ll take a swim.
Barry: A swim before bedtime. That sounds nice. I’ll come along with you. (Rises)
Betty: Can’t you leave me alone for a minute! (Barry sits back, startled) In Europe . . . when we went to Europe, you never let me alone. You’d say, ‘What did we come here to see, anyway …’
Barry: (Smiling) Why, I was joking.
Betty: You’d say, ‘I never wanted to be a tourist.’
Barry: Never. Never wanted to be a tourist. Wanted to be a traveller. (Pauses) I remember your body, so slim, so cool, in all those rooms. The light, the way it fell on your body in all those different rooms.
Betty: The lighting in the pool is very nice.
Barry: (Looking through the glass) Yeah, that worked out well, didn’t it. Betty: You always wanted a pool.
Barry: Sign of the good life. (Pauses, bends forward a little) Look, let’s Betty: It doesn’t matter.
Barry: It .. .
Betty: A minor disappointment or two. We’re in love.
Barry: Yes! (More quietly) These are ironies, merely.
Betty: An ironic life, inherited from my father perhaps, along with his blue eyes.
Barry: You have blue eyes?
Betty: You don’t want to talk about my father?
Barry: Well, we have before. We have at some length actually, spoken about your father, the irony inherent in his situation.
Betty: A minister, all those years, and now a guard, protecting nuclear submarines from vandalism and sabotage.
Barry: He says they’re quite beautiful. He wants to arrange a tour on one of them for our son.
Betty: I will not allow him to arrange that ever. Barry: Oh come on, the kid will be thrilled.
Betty: My father had faith,now he has nothing. He protects death from defamation.
Barry: It’s just a job.
Betty: What faith he had! But he was very strict. As a child I was not allowed to paint my nails or keep a diary. I was not allowed to read the funny papers on Sunday. I felt set apart, destined for something important. (Pauses) Say what you say when I mention the funny papers.Barry: I thought we were getting to be friends. Have I miscalculated? It has been five drinks, hasn’t it?
Betty: Oh, do say it.
Barry: Lack has always appealed to you.
Betty: Yes. (Pauses) I feel I must point out that you haven’t mentioned Don again. Howdy and Whiskey and Napoleon, always, but not poor, drowned Don.
Barry: I have mentioned Don.
Betty: But only in passing! As a rule we do not dwell on Don. Don, Don, Don, the sailing dog. My mother’s most faithful companion. An anchor rope was found around his leg as well.
Betty: The end of my childhood. My mother was an excellent sailor. There wasn’t anything she liked more than to sail beyond the sight of land with a dog. She taught me a few knots but I never had the knack. My mother was so capable. Being with my mother on the sea was as safe as sitting in a living room .. .
Barry: Let’s put dogs right out of our minds. We’ll get rid of this dog and buy a plant, something that will give off a little oxygen. Let’s forget dogs forever. Let’s take a swim, it will reduce the risk of hangover. Let’s kiss, it might lead to love.
Betty: (Puts down her glass, rises) Just give me a few minutes. I want to put up my hair.
Barry: I love it when you put up your hair.
Betty: (Walking over to him) The drip from the suspended oar. (She bends down) Wordsworth. (He kisses her. She walks through the doors leading to the pool.)
Barry: (Sits, looking at the tail. The slow beating we heard is audible. He gets up and goes over to the bar, starts to make another drink, then doesn’t. He puts out the light over the bar and one or two other lights in the room. There only remains the light coming from the pool area and the light by the sofa which illuminates the motionless tail. He sits down in the chair, studies the tail.) This is our life. You’re giving the wrong impression. You’re casting a poor reflection. (Pauses) A choice was made after all this time and you were acquitted … received . . . acknowledged. (Pause) It wasn’t my idea. I like to have a good time. (Pause) Dammit! (Gives the tail a kick. The tail disappears beneath the sofa. He looks at the spot where it was. Sighs, stands up, unbuttons his shirt, calls toward the pool) Betty? (There is no answer) Darling, I’m waiting. (He turns out the light by the sofa and walks toward the door leading to the pool.)
Two white whales, the father and the bolster
That he hugs, rolling his sour stomach for relief
Until the medicine becalms. Something he ate.
High up in the hotel room the roof beams,
Carved with bluebirds and red crocuses,
Are thatched with shadows. Hammocks
Of cobweb luff in the rising heat.
His wife pages through a guidebook. His children
Finger new purchases, the girl her dirndl skirt,
The boy his Swiss watch with 17 jewels,
Already a glinting scratch across the crystal.
August, a rainy month in this small country,
A gray scrim lowers on the castle at the window.
Now he is snoring, whom the doctor sighed for
Listening to his chronicle that accused
Last night’s Italian dinner: “Ah, but you are a foreigner.”
Sleeping now, the man-long pillow in his arms.
Last night among candles with their children,
The parents took off their masks of worry.
The folio-sized menu backed with white satin
Printed in German came to life as boats
Of sauces, soup tureens, platters full
Of smiles. After the long, grinding climbs,
The stint of travel poverty, along rivers,
At shrines in passes without bathroom facilities,
They smiled, breaking their painted, wooden reserve,
Adding their children to their happiness.
Last night, in this reposeful cup
Between the upper Rhine and the Santis Mountains,
Happiness rose as light as a fleck of snow.
But then it spun, a harrowing spur,
All night in Father’s guts, turning singular,
Exclusive. He needs to be alone.
Out in the little capital, the day above
The heads of the mother and her boy and girl
Combs rain out that hangs too high as yet,
Lapsing over the castle’s roofs and windows.
The children ask questions about the prince
And reason that, being only a prince
And his castle small, he might welcome a visit.
But Mother says the way looks wet and steep.
They find a konditorei of covered tables,
Sober as snow in an empty city square
Where statue-like two pairs of men eat ice cream
At separate tables, a table in between them.
Two of the men whisper head-to-head.
The others, old and young, both smile.
The mother lets her children say the French
For ice cream, and at once the old man speaks.
His elephant ears are nests of silver hair,
His bald head faintly blue with broken vessels.
He compliments the girl’s black braids,
The boy’s blondness, and their mother’s youth,
Nimble with English, with flattery.
The white ice cream tastes sweeter than its color,
Like the flesh of pears and apples,
And comes in tulip glasses that, empty,
Show a smokey tinge and weigh no more
Than cobwebs. The old man keeps talking,
“It is a pretty place, our country,”
And they nod despite the weather. Then changed
By sweetness, they say, “Yes, yes, it is.”
He admires the boy’s new watch, the girl’s dress
Spotted with ice cream, and sympathizes
That Father back at the hotel is sick and sleeping.
Strands of wet snag on the window panes
Then rain falls in a rush, tress after tress.
“It is a pretty place,” he says again.
“You would not think it an unhappy place.
Yet like America it has its history,
Much older, of course, and just as sad.
Our little country gave up one in ten,
One in ten, 300 out of 3000, 300 years ago.
But you, too, know of witches hunting in America.
A kleinstaat, however, is like a small town.
There were jealousies and the wild assumption
That eternity could be won for the accused
And for the living peace of mind—with fire.
The woman and her children stare, enclosed
Now by the rain and by this voice,
This confidence that starts a conversation
Anywhere with anyone and tells a story.
“But the witches tale a child would love I know …”
The boy and girl swallow their ice cream
And feel it down their throats, a cold paste.
The old man’s young companion poises, but well—
The woman appears intrigued and arches
Her fine American neck toward him—he sees it—
Sap-gold as barkless fruit wood.
“The minnesängers have an old love song.
I could sing it but my voice has hit
Its tree line—rocky now. It goes, in sum,
That hunting once for capercailzie
(You know them? Game birds, gallinaceous),
A hunter pierced a woman in a clearing.
When he bent to her to break the arrow,
He held a mass of feathers that squirted away.
He followed the blood, like scarlet stitchery,
To a black hollow, slimey with old leaves,
Under a willow’s root. There he thrust in
His hand, and found a passage, fresh with air,
Lit by the door ajar at the other end.
At this door, he watched her, the witch, as you might
Watch one of your children dress for bed
When they are very young. He watched,
But she was not a child and not a hag, hurt
Above the heart, winding a bandage, so.”
And for the children, watching like witnesses,
0’s of ice cream circling their mouths,
He makes the motion as if tying a band
Around his own chest. “She knew he watched,
Knew when the wound was dressed,
He too would be bound. She made the knot.
The door opened—and she had him!
She set him up in feathers,
A capercailzie cock, to finish her autumn forage.
His plumage blurred among the evergreens,
The gray, green, and black shadows,
His will mute, his protests. Then, an arrow
Broke his first flight and he was free.
This hunter was the daughter of a count.
She found him lying as he had found the witch,
But he stayed human in her hands, oh yes,
And spoke to her, healed by her touch,
Which was as smooth as polished fruit wood.
She was fascinated that a bird, in a blinding second,
Now lay in her arms, a man. He spoke …”
A pop like a flash bulb’s startles them
There is a quiet second of deadened breath.
One of those weightless tulips has been broken
At the other table. The German cries
Coming through cupped hands are quickly translated
To the mother’s shock: ” ‘What have you done?’
He’s saying. ‘Why?’ ” The attacker,
The glass stub in his hand, shakes his head, dazed.
He does not know what he has done.
His friend’s nose, split at the tip, pokes
Through one hand, the other curls over eyes.
Both children glimpse the blood; their mother
Whisks them out; the rain has stopped.
At the hotel, the bolster lying against his thigh
Like the pillar of salt Lot might have taken to bed,
Father’s his old self, rising like warm air,
A thawing breath of valley-flooding wind
Rolling timbers of welcome against them,
The red-eyed children, the pale, shaken wife.
He’s ordered supper, been reading about Italy.
What is wrong? She tells as much as she can:
A brawl in a coffee shop, a man shoved
A dessert glass into another man’s face.
And the children go on about a story
Of bird-men and women, and a bald man,
And witches burned here by the thousands.
Father feels weak again. The evening comes.
She meets the knock as if she dreaded
It would come, one hand on the door’s panel,
The other on the knob, pressing against opening,
A quiver from her running through the door.
In bed, her husband, feeling better now,
Leans curiously. The children stand in bathrobes.
It is the young, silent man from this afternoon,
The one who translated the cries for her.
“I have come to make apologies, I hope.
That was not a picture of our country,
No more than we get on TV of your country.
I came to make it up, with gifts.”
He gives each child a clear, waxed envelope
Holding three stamps. “We make them,”
He draws his hand, thumb and index pinched,
Beside his temple, squinting. “Engrave them,
Uncle and I.” The children peer at them,
Three rectangles of sunstruck reds and blues
Embossed with black tracery to make
Three stained glass windows: a coat of arms,
A haloed woman holding a church, and another—
They know her—Mary with her baby.
In the upper corners, there are landscapes
Made of sunlight. Bowing a little,
The children put the stamps back carefully,
Surprising their mother, and say, “Merci. Danke.”
But when she turns to him as if to receive
Something, too, he shows his empty hands.
“No,” she smiles. “How did the story end?
The hunter was about to speak. What did he say?”
“The story? Yes. Let me say
It was not right even without an end.
The cock makes many flights, always coming back
With what he finds—grubs, grains—
For the witch’s winter. He loves her.
Love is his spell. Shot by the countess,
This spell is broken and he must die.
In another version, he is just a bird
In love with a human being, doomed
By his feelings. These are big birds,
You know, these grouses. The horse of the woods.”
Her husband has drowsed off and wakes,
Looking attentive, like a turtle poking out
To watch the continuing drift he might have—
But doubts that—he has missed.
She sees between them a fraternal commiseration,
The two men about to speak, turning away
From a woman and her children, to that peculiar language
That, now she knows, can break glass in a face.
Already, the splinter of this place
Glints in her memory, point-in.
What has he suffered but some indigestion?
What has he done but missed it all and made her
Present for it alone, with no more than children?
He nods inside his snowy, mountain shell.
“You are ill, sir, I understand,” says the stamp engraver.
“Yes. Something I ate last night. Canellone?”
“Possibly. But, of course, you are a stranger.”
People That Dream, Whales That Dance
The full text of this story is not currently available online.
Julian says he’s looking for something. Julian’s my father and we’ve been living here in Cabin #7 Habor Lights Motor Inn since early May.