Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

Search & Rescue by Michael Chitwood

Memorial Day weekend,
the lake is thronged
with boats and jet skis,
memory's water walkers.
He's lost count of the drownings.
It's all down there,
tobacco fields, the old homeplace,
cross-cut saws, creek stones
that marked unnamed graves,
woodstoves and chicken coops,
spinning wheels and chestnut cradles
and coffins,
the old rugged cross
and all the yellowed almanac hokum.
After the first frost,
he found a hornet's nest
latched to a low limb,
which meant a mild winter.
He brought it in and spent hours
peeling off the gray whispering layers.
It was a kind of translation,
unweaving the work
of so many mouths.
At the core of the nest
was the comb
with its tiny pharaohs entombed.
What to do now
with this pile of paper,
too delicate to accept
even the slightest mark?
The ancient blank text
kept mum.
The barn was his get-gone.
Long empty
and beginning to shed siding,
it still smelled of harness and hay,
of long field hours brought in.
Mud daubers had hung their clay flutes
just under the eaves.
Swallow nests tufted the rafters
and the swallows carved the dusk.
This was the use of disuse.
Loft, grain bin and stall
organized the silent dimness.
One summer, he found a litter
of kittens in the manger.
Five fur blots,
eyes squeezed shut, wriggling.
A day or two later
their limp stillness.
A tom had neatly slit each throat.
Six years old, he went with her
to decorate the church
for Christmas, clapboard Baptist,
sanctuary like a barn.
Her parents had given the land to the faithful,
though they had precious little land.
They had to wait for another woman to come.
She had the Virginia creeper
they'd wind around the white candles
in each sanctuary window.
They sat in the front pew and waited.
It was cold and they kept their coats on.
It was the best sermon he'd ever heard,
the tall silence of the empty place,
the smell of talc in her old coat
and when the grumbling basement furnace
finally kicked on, some dust leapt up from the vents
and danced around the pulpit.
After a week's visit,
he finds, on the nightstand,
a mound where his daughter
peeled her sunburn,
a small pyramid of skin.
He was to be paid
a penny per thistle.
He was to keep count.
The swing blade said, tsk, tsk
like a frowning grandmother.
By noon his hands
were blistered.
His arms that night
would remember the swinging blade.
He lost count sometime
in the afternoon.
How many thistles
could a pasture hold?
It was a riddle
from a sphinx.
The purple blooms
on the spikey stalks
were plundered by bees,
honey for the combs.
They troll for a drowning
with a grappling hook,
though the body,
once it bloats, will rise.
It's a courtesy Search & Rescue
does for survivors,
taking some action for the living.
When the power company exec explained
what they would be paid for the land
to be under water then left
in a black Lincoln Continental
his father said,
"I reckon there's nothing to be done about it,
just have to live beside it.
All the old thinking will be underneath."
Even his way in words
would be drowned.
The boys on the stand-behind mowers
glide over the hillside across the cove.
He doesn't speak their language.
They don't speak his.
But they know grass.
They cross-hatch the green
and glide like a stately procession
of jackal-headed gods across papyrus.
The dam was sealed
the year he was born.
"A monument to human
engineering," the paper said.
Sometimes at dusk
he stands on the bank
and thinks, "You and me,
lake, we're the same age
and what we have
we have underneath."
The troll boats are out again,
dragging their grappling hooks.
Someone has come up missing.
That's the story of our lives, he thinks.
They're half throttle
as they work a grid
in what has no grid,
the big cave of the water.
He wonders if the two drowned rivers
are still moving, still sliding
in their beds beneath, water under water.
Dusk in its shepherd cloak
is walking out.
Search & Rescue calls it a day.
The hooks come up without their man.
Cicadas sing like the shrill of the depths.
There was the store with the screen door,
the man with three days' growth of beard,
always. How did he do that? Never clean-shaven.
And the fat woman with her pencil stub
and brown paper bags she totaled up tabs on.
The oiled wooden floor cried
for the pacing of this or that,
what could be done without.
Moses in a basket floating
in the bulrushes.
What were bulrushes?
He clipped the picture
with the safety scissors.
His Sunday School teacher
said there weren't any bulrushes
in the mountains.
Everything miraculous
happened somewhere else.
After watching the news at noon
he goes out to the shop
to work on the weedeater.
He puts the shaft in the vise
and starts to tinker.
The carburetor's gunky.
He thinks about his shifts at the mill,
the banked hours he lives on now.
The shop's tin roof ticks.
His daughters live in other states.
Glass baby food jars of saved nuts and washers
line the dusty shelves.
The bed was one of two strangenesses
in the house.
It was an odd contraption,
too big for the bedroom and chrome-shiny,
out of place under the stiff, yellowed portraits
of a man and woman he didn't know.
She rested there,
the bed cranked up part way.
She was an old queen on her throne,
eyes shut, with a difficult choice to make.
His father's father
spent the afternoons with his head bowed
over the Bible or a baseball game
on the crackling Philco.
Clouds slid their shadows
through the windows
as if great fish passed quietly overhead.
"Live beside it."
What he's done for fifty some years.
On paper he's wealthy.
The summer people slide by,
oiled bodies in pleasure craft,
gunning of a torqued engine.
The busy gray nest
swallows hornets like words
returning to the mouth.
Summer afternoons he read.
There was nothing else to do.
Too hot to ride his bike.
Tales of empires, great kings.
From the porch
he watched the old red hay baler
making its rounds
in the field behind his grandfather's
ruin of a barn.
His father rented the field
to a man who raised beef cattle.
The square bales dropped
from the baler's chute.
The field was being organized
into neat blocks.
It's what we do, he thought,
arrange the grass, make stacks.
At the field's edge
the rising water shimmered.
He thinks it's barn-light down there,
the silt swirling like barn dust,
seeming to climb the shafts of light
that plunge in from above.
Of course it's going nowhere
and everywhere all at once.
It's murky and the sound
is like the blood
you hear thrumming in your ears
when all is very still.
Then a smallmouth pocks a mayfly
from the surface and the spell is broken.
Wavelets work out from the center,
the bull's eye widening until it's gone.

This poem is published with the permission of LSU Press, from the volume, Search and Rescue.

Michael Chitwood is the author of 7 collections of poetry. 
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