THE BEECH TREE AND THE CRONE
Crone to Reader:
The Beech, he draped me gingerly in moss,
a shawl to keep my shoulders ragged, fringed
with berry bugs. My feet the brambles shod
and bade me bleed the red clay red across
dead deer trails, paths until then unimpinged
now bloodmud, bogged, a red-black promenade.
Did you not see me bend the cedar bough
into a fragrant crown? Could you not smell
the air I conjured—rooster, kid goat, sow
upon it heavy? Hemp and asphodel?
Should not the hemlocks twist their branches down
to hold my head half-hearted hard between
the dirt and cloudless sky? Should I not drown
their roots in nightshade, larkspur, castor bean?
Beech to Reader:
My wood slopes down into the Land of Sheep,
and, slow, the Holy Crone draws tight her shawl
and, bent low, crawls and claws along the path.
No sheepkind in the valley stir from sleep
though lupine creeps the Crone between them all.
O crafty crook, O ancient polymath!
And look now as she crests the hill and springs
up from the dirt. And look, her shawl falls back,
her face pure light, a scouring sun. It sings
loud light like laughter, nova, thunder crack.
And look, the sheep whip, waking, round to see
what star, what god burns, white and alien,
but find there just the dawn-red rising sun,
light filtered through branches of a tree.
Crone to Beech:
O Brother, save me from whatever ails
the farmer with his phone grown to his skull,
the preacher with his lacquered fingernails,
the doctor dim, his pockets overfull.
O friend of windless waters, lord of lichen,
hang me from the rafters of this shack
before they drag me from my wood. I frighten
less at nothingness than going back.
Sweet Brother, I’ll be satisfied as long
as airplanes skitter past unknowing high
above this wood, my hut, my patch of beans.
As long as what I reckon right or wrong
suits you, it suits me, too. As long as I
am matriarch of all my in-betweens.
Beech to Crone:
Whenever was your brother, Sister, half
the tree your daydream offered—undergrown
and sickly, an abandoned winter calf.
All prayers and blessings owed you, Holy Crone
festooned with sage and silk—who blew into
the babies’ mouths and cured them of the thrush—
could never hush your brother’s bugaboo,
his druthers lonely more than love can crush.
Ought not your wishes fix the knotted heart
these scrub-pine hillocks pilfered lovingly
as oak regards scrub-oak? And what dark art
will bid your brother sing the open door—
the song that drives the sailor out to sea,
the song that holds his vessel close to shore?
Crone to Reader:
An outstretched hand does not itself assume
beneficence, just as, for instance, worms—
however split the Beech’s trunk, with room
enough inside—may not be offered terms
for habitation, yet may habitate
therein and nonetheless be grateful, while
the Beech himself—as ever obstinate—
insists they are unwelcome, loathsome, vile.
Which comes as no surprise. Long years beneath
his heavy limbs my hut hid, hardly me
inside it ever, though I hung my wreath
upon the door: white sage to purify,
alyssum leaf to calm the soul-sick tree
who nightly prayed the tree gods let him die.
THE GRANDFATHER TREE
On a cliff above the bay there stands a tree,
and on the tree, a face of knotted vines
with eyes set back so deep no one can see
what form they take, just shadows. Even when
the low sun slants between the bramble spines,
it cannot touch the eyes shrouded therein.
Below, the nose, a branch stump disarrayed
by lichen, slopes down, steep, into a hook.
And then the mouth, lips greener than a blade
of barley grass, the thin vines braided, twined
and ancient, never mind the tender look—
nor mind the scowl, as old as any mind.
And hanging low, a long grandfather beard,
the moss fronds dry and pale and rustling in
a wind too rank with salt to go unfeared.
As wind, so tree. Beside the sea, this place
is unassailable, though innocent
as yet of war, watched over by the face.
Yet nothing that can be cannot be, and so
the tree, the great grandfather tree, will wait.
The cliff may soon erode—the tree outgrow
its shelf—but even if it does not stand,
these eyes one day will see blood drawn in hate,
though they gaze up through the water from the sand.
Dad looped a chain about a young buck’s rack
of spikey antlers and—the chain cinched tight
around the front-end loader—climbed behind
the tractor’s wheel. He pulled a lever, raised
the carcass from the dark barn’s hay-strewn floor.
The headlamps fluttered, weak, then flared to life.
Suspended now, the deer swayed back and forth—
swayed gently, almost imperceptibly—
its double cast in black upon the wall.
Hooked blades in hand, my father and my brother
set about their work. The blood streamed black
and violet on the straw as stroke by stroke
they hacked the belly open, spread it wide.
I looked on, frightened, tentative, enthralled.
Inside the deer’s dank husk there grew an absence—
empty flesh, all empty but for light,
for air, for blood and membrane, empty but
for emptiness, for sound though it was silent.
Still empty then of suffering, I turned,
I looked away. The world had not yet filled
me up with fear of losing anything,
had not yet burdened everything I saw
with metaphor. But I was ten years old.
The sounds of cutting done, I turned to see
my brother scoop the organs, hooves, and head
into a barrow, lean the shovel slicked
with blood against the wall, and wheel the offal,
steaming still, out through the moonless dark
into the woods—coyotes yowling, hungry.
Nick McRae is the author of The Name Museum (C&R Press, 2014) and Mountain Redemption (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), as well as editor of Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets (Sundress Publications, 2013). His poems have appeared in Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. A graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at Ohio State University, he is currently associate editor of 32 Poems and Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.