Those Who Knew Them Best


Who burned this village
Branding all who ride or wake or sleep.
Named by their colored shirts
And crossing the drumlin plain
They left mercy miles along another road
Long back before the river froze

Whose son waited here to pass
Last week the schoolmaster swayed in
To kiss the oldest girl in lamplight
Her braids in love with his fingers
She is gone but not her lover
He sways there still tonight
And with his dim scuffed shoes inscribes
His last lesson in the savant breeze

  Whose children on the gravel sleep
Their lucent petal lids fluttering in dreams
Like wings of Saturn Moths in prayer
Longing for the honey gruel
Of last year’s complaint,
twitchy with starveling dreams
Of stockinged feet, sliced apples, ditch banks,
And pollywogs they dare not eat

Who pulled down the yellow barn
While the cows still lowed at morn
And no one from the house ran out to see
Or tossed wet burlap bags to beat the flames
Or called the weeping stable hands away
From faltering screams of foals
Laid by writhing trestles to an early grave

Whose woman wanders in the yellow trees
All tender grasses now matted brown
On her shawl forgotten fragments play
The chatter of her teeth break time
Across a maggot minuet in patient figures
Her sweetest ghosts, like gypsy violins
Play always sharp, a flurry of knives against the dark

The cousins of the butcher left too late
And now their corpses block the city gate
Pretty blue bottles rest upon their eyes
The willow china slivers hold the light
The feather mattress bleeding down
Still hitched the oxen cannot rest in place
And wait in vain for those who knew them best

Who left the old man propped against
The darkened wall, a city elder
Until Tuesday, shaven, proud
Now all day turning in his bitter hands
A pale circle of old gold, round and round
Like horses kicking sand beyond the withy gate
He, who would have gone first,
Is left the last of all to waste away

No strangers’ hand flayed patterns
In the moon-soft dawn and swarmed
Through the sharded wheat-white fields, 
But enemies who were children here
Who, wading the same river, found it cold
And fell upon the schoolhouse path,
And on the western ridge rose first,
Then after, rose again to vanish in the trees.



Answer from the River Merchant's Wife