Back to Issue Twenty-Two.

in absentia



However old I get I’ll never be as wise as I was
that winter, rounding a barn corner with my cousin, finding
the body of a bear, its tongue lolled out like a king’s
scroll, its heavy body like an earth with the dead packed
too tight, crawling upward, pushing at the dirt. It was
pregnant, and dying, and out of breath. We thought of calling
a grown-up, but the closest one was six miles east or one
giant’s thumb north behind trees we deemed the darkest
mile. So we stood there, dumb and untrained in anything
that could help. Watching a thing die. Seeing its belly
kick. The hardest part of winter is the suddenness
of night. How you might spend two hours in the fluorescence
of a library’s catacombs and when you step outside it is the vampire
hour. Skulking shadows and some people preparing to be
drunk, and some people who have been drunk seventeen years
trying to make it through without opening the cabinet or stopping
by a 7-eleven after work, on the way home. I know
something about disease because my grandmother was
diseased. Those last years, she always asked where her purse
was. She left restaurants with pieces of toast in her pocket,
dinner rolls up her sleeve and fish like a Jesus magician. I watched
her face sometimes scrunch up as some little archivist in her mind
tried to locate my name, dust it off, bring it with a smile. Instead
it was my mother whisking us into the back yard for hammock time
and lawn darts, or to weed the hill which had become bearded in stars
from the star thistle bush, or she’d take us to see the candy man who was a genuine
candy man before he retired. Truth is a pill you swallow by not understanding
you have a mouth. So I am diseased. And my cousin never made it back
from Afghanistan. A sorry letter. A little flag. That’s what you get
if your child dies. Could be worse, I guess. The land baron’s prima
, Hussein’s unhappy production of gathering the heads
of state into a run-down theater, listing half of them as traitor,
taking each into a school playground, putting a gun into one
of their hands, telling them shoot. We didn’t kill the bear. We couldn’t
find a rock that would do. Plus there were devils in that field
like any field. Could be worse, I guess, but I can’t imagine how
for her. Her zombie children. To be alive is a kind of darkness, sure,
but there are certain darknesses you live with, even come to
love, and there are others. No two devils are the same but every sixth apple
I’ve sliced became a metaphor for something it wasn’t: a knight’s
head, a star’s blossom, a movie-set town blown leftward in the wind
of a nuclear bomb. So much empty space between atoms. So much it can’t be
properly understood. It’s why we can be filled with so many regrets
and yet so many fiestas, two currents of the same river running opposite
directions. The town we lived in would never come back. The bear saw
to that. Maybe it’s why I understood so quickly when my cousin told me
years later how some men in prison spend entire nights in the dark
reciting Tupac songs to no one. Maybe it’s why men put roses all over
their arms, to be wrapped in beauty’s many claws. Homes fail. New Families
move in. The dead stay near the surface to see if their favorite baseball team
will ever take the world. If you can imagine having no mouth you can imagine
having reason to love the bite of the season’s first cold. Where I live now,
there are owls in the river. They come back nightly. They fan their wings
but I don’t know what they are doing. I never saw them until now. They are so quiet
through this glass. Like a 1940’s film on industry. Bodies in motion for a cause
that makes no sense now. I don’t know what they are doing.


Jeff Whitney is the author of five chapbooks, two of which were co-written with Philip Schaefer. Recent poems can be found or found soon in 32 Poems, Booth, Colorado Review, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, and Thrush Poetry Journal. He lives in Portland.

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