The Boiler

Nick McRae

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.
 

CLEAN

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.