Tell Me a Story; A Photograph from the Indian Wars; Cake

Tell Me a Story
Very well.

The heat was like a big hand
smoothing out the landscape.

Beyond the farmhouse and kitchen garden
chickens fussed and scratched
in the dust of the barnyard.

Pigs sought out the coolness of mud,
and a cow path
lazed toward a pond
green with duckweed.

When the wind dropped
you could hear a barely audible
buzz from the bee tree
where the drive curved.

Smoke rose from the cooks’ cabin before day
and work began at six.
The men had to be fed.
Then there was the sound
of a mule’s complaints,
and a lug-wheeled tractor cranking

and they were off
to cotton fields in the bottom land
picking up break-of-day
straw-hatted hands along the way.
But tell me—is it true
that where there is labor
there will also be daydreamers
and those whose task it is to remember?

In his playroom up under the eaves
of that old hipped-roof house,
the farmer’s little grandson
spun his idle fantasies,
and Grandmother pondered
begettings and begats
in the broad-leafed book
open in her lap.

The son who went into a far country
and wasted his substance with riotous living
and collapsed drunk every night among pigs,
returned one day,
dragging blistered feet
through the dust of the road home.

Where Mary and Martha kept house,
an upper room was swept and dusted
and a bed made up
for a guest both human and divine.

There were born-and-dieds
in different hands and inks
in the Bible that Grandmother held,
descending to the present
in counter-motion to the sky blue
morning glories strung up on the porch
turning their faces skyward.

The little boy in his playroom
conjured the future from childish imaginings,
like Joseph in exile in Egypt
who could riddle out dreams—
like the boy, the chosen one,
the boy who came into the temple
and struck the elders dumb with amazement.
A Photograph from the Indian Wars
They shadow me, these trees
from a century and a half ago
on a postcard I bought in Montana.

Something has been lashed to their branches.
You can just make it out through the sepia.
They’re burial trees.

I know these trees, or ones like them—
black cottonwood, box elder, green ash.
Sometimes I pitch my tent and camp in their shade
on my pilgrimage west.

They gentled their wounded,
the Lakota and Cheyenne,
on sledges made from saplings
as they trekked south toward the
White Rain Mountains,
pausing only to bury their dead.

They washed the blood from the dead men’s hair,
dressed them in what finery they owned,
lashed them to branches
with strips of buffalo hide,
and pointed their feet toward the rising sun

so that the dead might not lie in mud and water,
the chant went,
so that wolves might not dig up their bodies,
so that animals might not walk over their graves—

these pilgrims crossing the great divide
as ravens tore the flesh from their bones.
The city she lived in was not
the city I lived in, even though we lived in
the same city.
In my city people didn’t carry a revolver
in their glove compartment as she did
in the old Chevrolet my mother gave her.

I never learned her last name,
and now there’s no one left alive
who could tell me.
To me she was just Ollie,
and she watched over me, most days,
while Mama taught French at the girls’ school.

There’s no going back in time
but I wish I could go back.
I’d like to get inside
the mind of this woman
who was paid to look after me.
I can only imagine how paltry her wages were.

The stations she listened to, I listened to.
Her food she liked, I liked.
She came from Arkansas, and one of her eyes
looked straight and one looked sideways.
She’d been kicked by a mule, she said,
and maybe I believe that and maybe I don’t.

She was partial to country music
so we listened to heartbreak
and honky-tonk angels and backstreet affairs
while she ironed
and while she stood at the stove
making her hot water corncakes.

After she moved back down to the country,
the cake she baked every year on my birthday
and mailed from Pine Bluff
didn’t travel well. She put it in a pasteboard box,
took it to the post office and mailed it off.
Every year I opened a box of crumbs from her.