Blinking awake, I couldn’t immediately place The sound. But at three a.m. Any sound that’s not the buzzing of cicadas Or tree frogs, Begs attention A clatter? A clicking bump? There had been serious rain. Was the river on the rise Banging the boats together? Might have to go down and lengthen the lines. Grabbed the flashlight and stepped out into the damp chill Where the halfmoon light glowed Weakly through the fog. Hadn’t taken the time to Pull on my wet sneakers -an ordeal in itself- So buckled immediately when an acorn cap Bit into my bare foot. Then again, on the next step when it stuck there. I had to lean against the cabin’s slippery wall to lift my foot; In my dotage I need either two feet on the ground Or a hand assist. I envied the horses on this, lift one leg still three down. The river was in good shape if a little murky from the storm but the boats were riding fine. Cans were scattered around the patio Probably a coon-long gone now. A skunk would have left his aromatic calling card and coyotes would have announced Their presence. I hadn’t carried the .22 out with me Because shooting guns in the middle of the night Just out of a dead sleep is The most appalling kind of folly. Then, from somewhere on the mountain Came the mournful call of a Great Horned Owl Too faint to have heard from inside. I tried to answer but sounded ridiculous. Embarrassed for the owl, I shut up. He moved and called again. Then again from the triple sycamore just downstream. I’d clean up the mess in the morning. Appreciative. The owl was worth getting up for.
The stars are reflected in the grass tonight, as fireflies refuse to fly anymore. They lay about in the thick brush, a flickering blanket answering the twinkle from on high. Do they act like this on long summer evenings? How could they? Kids would scoop them up by the million! Jar them, squish them, write their initials with glowing firefly goop on their arms. Boy kids chasing girl kids squealing with glossy boogers of firefly goop. No, they wouldn't lay about like this in the summer. But now they seem tired, these flies. These non-flies. These fire layabouts. It's September after all. Dark at eight thirty, kids busy with their homework, staring at their screens. It's safe to lay in the weeds, done with the darting and flying exerting minimum effort. If a firefly's flicker is meant To draw a mate, these lazy bums should go home alone. © TDR - 2020
There is a path through the ruins where one can amble for quiet hours
taking care not to trip over what once was overhead.
Or fall into the leavings below.
Where once were sirens, whistles, smoke, roars and crashing,
Are now trees, brush, and birds-the twittering sentinels
Of what has passed.
The path probably started as a path-a deer trail through the woods.
Then it became a road that first wagons and carts
then cars and trucks hustled commerce along.
None of those could pick a trail through now.
It’s reverted to a deer trail again, fit only for careful feet, bicycles or, I suppose a horse and rider.
But a horse, though trained, is not much different than the rodents, deer and coyotes
that now use this thoroughfare.
Ruined for us by us.
The sun has only just
Sunken below the ridge
When the little screech owl
(poorly named as it doesn’t screech at all)
Begins its falsetto trill
Announcing that the sun is gone;
The night games can begin.
He’s upstream-due west
Perhaps in the big sycamore.
No bigger than my fist, invisible in the gloaming
That’s fine-I don’t need to see him to
Know what he’s saying.
The evening rooster trilling the eagle home
From the hunt.
Calling the tree frogs out to sing.
The snakes have gone to ground.
Raccoons and possums shake off the days’ slumber.
Finches and towhees give way to swallows dipping and diving
After mayflies and skeeters.
Then the bats join the dance-flickering blindly in
Four directions at once.
Bull frogs thump, thump in the weeds while
Big bass-hearing and hunting-patrol the shallows under dusk’s cover.
Coyotes yip and bobcats cough and deer are free to
Roam the fields.
Venus has just risen in the pearl gray sky when
An otter snags a catfish and curls on a rock to feast.
The trilling says it’s our time now.
Stars awaken and the
We’ll fill your dreams, it says, with the music of the ages.
© TDR 2019
To say it was a premonition might not be accurate. I don’t know that anything was being foretold, but it was something. As if a conversation had been interrupted suddenly. It was still dark, so the sky didn’t reveal itself but my sinuses, and the lack of stars, told me it was either raining or about to. Probably more of a drizzle-a bone chilling late November drizzle. I pulled the spare pillow over my head and flopped onto my side squeezing my eyelids shut as if sleep, once fled, could be coaxed back. It usually didn’t work.
What was it? I wondered. My eyes scanned the room for an intruder-real or imagined. The darkness must not have been truly dark-or pitch, as they call it-because I could make out the chair by the window. It was empty as it should have been but for a moment-just a moment-I was sure someone was sitting there. Someone had to have been sitting there. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But no. And there was no movement in the house. My perturbed heart fluttered lightly and I held my breath to better hear. Nope. Nada. Had there been a forgotten dream that left me feeling this way?
Sleep had been deep and syrupy-aided no doubt by a glass of bourbon around ten. But just one. More than that and I’d have stirred all night. But no, no dreams that I could remember. There was something though-like a rush of water…maybe wind through the leaves. I’d been back in the woods yesterday and had heard the winds whispering. Maybe it had stuck with me. Maybe I’d dragged something back again like a burr in the cuff of my jeans.
After thrashing about for a while-probably no more than minutes-I tossed the covers and sat up, bare feet on the chill wood floor. I’d have to lay a fire in tonight, no doubt. It was time. Always tried to go as long as possible without one. The woodpile seemed large enough but nothing worse than reaching the end of it in a chilly, wet March. Without turning on any lights I made my way down the back stairs into the kitchen avoiding the urge to look back over my shoulder.
I poured a glass of cold water in the light from the open refrigerator and gulped it; less drinking than hydrating. I poured another and reached back behind the eggs for the old pill bottle. A day that started with an edge before sunup was a day best avoided. I shook a few tablets into my hand and regarded them carefully before deciding on an orange football. I swallowed it and replaced the bottle, closing the door and sliding back into the dark. Still nothing brightening outside.
With the refilled glass I padded into the living room and sat in the recliner. By feel I found the cigar box on the table and opened it. Like a soldier who learned to break down his weapon blindfolded, I took the glass one-hitter out of the box and broke off a piece of bud that was rolled in the corner of a plastic bag. The lighter flared and I sucked an enormous cloud into my lungs. I held it only so long as the bud was burning away and took a second hit-bigger than the first. The ember in the pipe went out. That was that. I sat back and embraced the smoke for what seemed like hours before letting it out with a slow whistle.
Once, when drinking, I had told my brother about my drug habits and how I dealt with life’s stresses. He called me a coward. Of course he did-the prick. I had wanted to slap him, but he was my older brother. And bigger. And in better shape. Had I slapped him he would have been surprised and maybe laughed at me. But there was the possibility he might have kicked my ass, so I didn’t slap him. Wonder what he was up to these days? He was a major pain in the dick, but I still wondered sometime where he was.
I rubbed my hand over my face hard. Once. Then again. It was starting. The roof of my mouth was dry. My lips stuck gently together. The water-sipped like expensive wine-was perfectly chilled. My heart fluttered a bit more-the dope would do that-but only for a little bit. By the time I got back into bed and stretched out, the layer of warm, wet cotton would cover me from the top down and I’d drift back off into the black. Of course, there was always the chance that I wouldn’t fall back to sleep and would just lay there stoned for a few hours. Which, on balance, beat the shit out of laying there straight.
Back in bed I glanced at the chair once more. Still seemed to be empty, which was good, but I resisted any temptation to go near it. I remembered slapping my lips once. Then drifting away.
An hour after it’s been shot between the eyes-
Beheaded, hung to drain and gutted-
The snapping turtle’s heart will still beat.
Cut from its carcass and left on the cutting board,
It will beat, regular and strong-
Until finally, frustrated with nothing to do, it stops.
Old timers-Turtle Hunters- reach into holes along the mud banks of rivers,
Happy that snappers crawl up into their lairs
But all could tell the tale of the contrary turtle that backed in-
Catching the contrary bastard that made a habit of reaching into
Holes in mud banks.
Turtles don’t let go.
They can be caught on a hunk of rope if they’re pissed off enough to bite on it
And be hauled into the boat.
Splayed in their mud cave, they can’t be pulled out.
Shovels are brought and mud banks are torn down to rescue the hand;
Sometimes minus the thumb or finger. But rescued.
And the turtle is still soup.
The brain that makes men reach into turtle holes
Is the same that makes them go into the mines.
Because their daddy did.
Because someone has to.
Because everyone else is afraid to.
Because we’re convinced that peace must be bought
My wife saw him first-riding ahead of me as she always did-and pulled off to wait for me. She was eyeing something on the trail that, even from a distance, I could tell was a snake. This has been a great summer for snakes and I’d caught and played with big blacksnakes, whippey little garters, a hog nosed, a couple of rat snakes and one beautiful corn snake that I wanted to keep. But didn’t. From the profile on the trail I expected a big black.
“Figured you’d want to see this one”, she said as I braked to a stop.
Getting closer, there was no mistaking. The sunlight shining off it’s head named it perfectly. She had heard the stories about all the copperheads I had caught as a boy. Climbing up the sunny rocks overlooking the river or kicking through the driftwood piles on the bends. There was no “why” to it back then but the excuse that I was sixteen or seventeen with more testosterone than brains.
There were belts, hat bands and just plain salted skins oiled and mounted on the garage walls. There were one or two still around when we got together which led to the stories. My rule then was to catch them alive and dispatch them gently, in a way that wouldn’t damage the skin.
That was as good an explanation as any but she knew better. She could hear in the stories the rush of hanging over a rocky outcropping forty feet above the water and yanking a copperhead by it’s tail from a fissure in the rock, dropping it to the ground and being quick enough to snatch it behind the head before it came back on me. To hold it thrashing in my fist-feeling the strength of it’s body and seeing the bare fangs wanting nothing more than to be inside me-got my heart racing like nothing else back then. Truth be told, that one had almost gotten me on the thumb. I had sat in the hot sun, legs dangling over the river, for a good twenty minutes until my heart regained its normal pace. I kept that skin the longest.
These days I give copperheads wide berth as much as I can. They and I share similar tastes in surroundings and terrain so they are always near. But avoidable. This guy, though, is right here. “You’re not going to pick it up, are you?” she asked noticing me moving toward the snake. She quickly repeated the words as a declaration rather than a question in case the seventeen year old me bubbled to the surface with none of the requisite reflexes or quickness.
“Naw. Just watching him move off into the tall grass. Beautiful, isn’t he…”
“You don’t kill what can’t harm you. And you shouldn’t kill what can harm you unless it’s a threat to you right there….Go around just killing stuff, it’ll eventually come back on you. It throws things out of whack.”
-from “Strange as this Weather Has Been”; a novel by Ann Pancake
He made a big deal of it later-about me “leaving the bed.” That’s the way he put it-I left the bed. More like fled, is what I did. But you know how he gets, so freaking dramatic. “You left the bed!” Christ, it was hot, the bed was wet with his bourbon sweat-the room reeked…It was too much. You bet I got the hell out of there.
It was oppressive on the porch too. You would think the screens would let the air circulate a little but maybe there are too many trees around. I don’t know. At least in the bedroom there was the ceiling fan keeping the mosquitoes at bay but I no sooner step onto the porch and ZAP! little bloodsucker gets me right on the shoulder…right here. And I could hear them buzzing…
Outside though, on the patio, was a breeze-I could hear it in the trees-so I stepped out there. It was a warm breeze of course, but it kept the little buggers from landing on me. That’s the thing about walking around naked, there is a lot of open real estate for mosquitoes. I had no idea what time it was-there were no lights-there was no one in the cabins around us-it was the middle of a work week.
No moon, but it really wasn’t dark. There were enough stars to light up the whole valley in this soft blue glow. Can you imagine? Enough star shine to see by? You never see that here. The river though, it looked like a big speckled snake-pitch black but littered, I mean covered-with stars. I’m looking at it from the deck and I…I’ve never seen anything like that. These stars….I guess I was star-struck, right? I wanted to touch them-to feel them. I had to get in there-into the river with them. I couldn’t go up-couldn’t fly into the night sky and touch them but I could slip into the river and let them cover me that way, right?
So I slipped on my Teva’s-the rocks are a bitch-and scampered down over the hill. I’m like a kid-can’t wait to get in there and be covered by the stars. I can still hear him snoring through the open window so I’m by myself totally…
I step in. The water is warm sure, but feels cool next to the air. Not cool enough for goosebumps. Like a bath. River’s only four or five feet deep in front of the cabin so I’m walking slowly, watching the stars swim and swirl around me. As I go further out it’s crawling up my legs-that’s what it feels like, crawling-this thick black blanket alive with all these blue speckles. I’m heading to this rock that I know-that I’ve played on since I was a kid-out near the middle.
Then-as I get deeper-the water reaches right…there. You know? Right here? Oh my, that was something-a little rush. A little tingle. I actually stopped and bent my knees-kind of moving into it-up and down? The current isn’t strong, but I can feel it you know? Just like it was laying on me. Not pushing-just laying.
So as I get deeper into this sparkling darkness, of course, it gets higher on me. The warmth of that blanket crawling up my hips, oozing up and filling the crack of my ass-I mean it! I could feel every inch it moved up my butt until it wrapped around my waist like a bath towel then up to here…then there was the rock. So I turn around and sit up on it.
It’s a big old rock, covered with all kind of river stuff…it’s rough on my butt, you know? It doesn’t hurt-but I can feel it. And it doesn’t feel bad, right? Not at all. Kind of like the roughness of it. I’m facing upstream and this little current is rubbing against me-of course-right at my nipples. Right there. Upstream is nothing but star-shine glitter and if it wasn’t for the black ribbon of the mountain you couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the river began. Took my breath away.
Then…then…I opened my legs a little to feel the current…There were these little minnows bumping into my legs so that felt weird and tickly. Then tingly. Suddenly my nipples are hard from the water lapping at them and I open my legs a little wider. Hmmmm….So I put my left hand on the rock to steady myself, reach down with the right…I was going to go at it gently you know? I wasn’t completely committed…I mean now, looking back it seems like that’s why I went out there in the first place. But it wasn’t. It just happened.
I touched the inside of my thighs you know…nice…soft…easy…around the lips-What’s the matter? You know what I’m talking about. Don’t laugh. Anyway, I slide in, just a little and got my finger on her and, BANG! at the first touch she was standing there stiff as a soldier ready for maneuvers. Sounds stupid to say I was wet-being in the river-but there’s wet and there’s wet. I was so freaking ready for this I couldn’t believe it. All subtlety is out the window-I’m rubbing like I’m trying to start a fire.
I’m squeezing my butt cheeks-they’re scraping on the rock-and that’s a thing too now, the roughness-I can feel it building…and I take my hand that’s balancing me on the rock and start to rub my nipples one then the other, a pinch here, a pull there, head back looking at the sky….then BAM! It’s there…it hits quick like a lightning bolt-all at once, runs up my spine, my butt, down my legs-shoots out my toes, my head’s back I’m looking at the sky- I’m fucking the stars man! I barked! I guess it was a bark-couldn’t keep the sounds inside. I know I moaned out loud. Then I lost my balance-the current isn’t strong-like I said- but I’m sitting there with my feet up my hands all over myself-SPLASH! I’m ass over tin cups off the rock and into the river.
Could still see them though….nothing but blackness around me…Bubbles going up cause I’m laughing-but the stars are twinkling up there, winking down at me…They know what I’m up to. Jesus I felt so good. Best underwater orgasm ever!
Then BAM! It’s all gone in a flash. Everything’s blinding white! It was him…he got up and turned the deck floodlights on-you can read by them across the river. I think he’s secretly afraid of the dark or something; I don’t know. But the stars are gone, the black blanket is gone. It’s just me laying at the bottom of the river.
I stand up-not easy my legs were shaking-and put my arms out like…What the fuck? I think he’s surprised to see my tits looking up at him.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” He screams. Nobody around for a mile-no sounds-I could hear a frog fart and he’s screaming!
My first impulse is to yell back something like “I’m rubbing one off in the river you fuck!” No really, I almost did. Wouldn’t that have been a thing? But I took a breath-modulated-asked him to please kill the lights as I’m enjoying a little swim. I said it like that-my clit’s buzzing, I’m still squirting, my heart’s racing and I’m speaking like I’m on Downton-freaking-Abbey-“I’m enjoying a bit of a swim.”
I don’t know what he saw…Don’t really care. But that’s when he says it-for the first time, “You can’t just leave the bed like that…” Jesus. What am I gonna do with him?
You mind if I smoke?