Spring 1991, Volume 8.1
Transplanting the Lady Slippers
Shovel, spade, rough bucket
in the trunk. I drove the rich mud
road where no car should go.
Up, up past boulders a hundred times
I parked in the shadow
beneath such a great stone leaning out
that at first my breath caught for fear
this igneous ledge should topple over me
as I might thoughtlessly snuff a gnat.
And the forest hushed around me. Boughs
in the tallest pines reached their balance.
Clouds looked down. Along the roadside,
tribes of fiddleheads stooped like monks
over their beads, counting
on the benevolence of all things
bigger than themselves.
Still I plodded untouched by the mud-suck
beseeching my feet. . .
and I dug the lady slippers, hacking
where rock and clinging roots connected.
Bristled, stabbing at the loam
with my spade, I knelt
until I couldn't stand
how the sweat of my own brutal sap
stung in my eyes like tears.
Nothing could stop me.
The lady slippers nodded helpless
above the rim of my bucket
as we bobbed and bumped back home.
Next to the iris, I potted the ladies,
watered and weeded them,
watched them . . . wither, droop, die.
That fall I burned their remains.
As flames tongued each crisp blade,
I stood poking at my inferno,
worried what cruel pleasure
each our lives might bring.
Strangers float through my tissue
thin walls, breathe themselves
under my door. A crowd
of voices, each of them calls
out on the phone nailed
in the hall. So close to my day-
dreams I lean from my desk chair
as if they whisper in my ear.
Don't lie to me, she says,
and after a brittle silence,
just don't lie.
Or the young
shoe salesman, I want to come home.
Whatever his error, I've changed.
Why can't I come home?
Another man dials, slaps the wall,
Answer! he commands.
Even I hold my breath
until he's slammed his mouthpiece
with such vengeance the little bells ding.
Or, Certainly you may, she sings,
That seems just right, just exactly what I hoped
you would say. Her words wash
over me. Then seconds past good-bye:
You idiot, she spits through clenched teeth.
Her heels hammer as they carry her away.
Now and again, someone from the other side
has dialed, and the phone jingles alone.
Wrong number? If it rings, I answer
or no one will. Hello. I strain
for a radio playing over the wires. A siren,
car horns. A baby's cry. Hello? Hello?
And today I overheard the black man confess
to his girl, how the taxi business
wore him thin. Everybody's got someplace
to go, he said. I miss you.
But it hurt
how his voice reached up at the close.
Not like he had something to tell.
Love you, he said.
Sort of a question.
Traveling back from Hot Springs last
night, late enough to worry not
on all I had left that day undone,
a side road often I had passed
called in the voice of a million yellow flowers.
For once I didn't think twice, how the sun
was low, while days lost in tracking hours
across a map. Give in. The day's shot,
said the gravel spitting under my wheels,
and I let that lane lead me where it would.
Laughing, lost, an outlaw on the roam
pleased at the breeze on my face and how it feels
to park along the cutbank where I stood
in the flow of pretending I might never go home.
First a truckload of cinder blocks
littered our yard and drive. Mother filled
boxes with beans dried hard as rocks.
My brother shook his head, I'd rather be killed
than eat this shit, he said, lifting a tin
of stewed prunes stowed in our garage.
Out back I heard the scrape of father's blade
breaking ground. Next war, win
or lose, his children would survive.
But I dreamed that night the bomb—collage
of fire—and next day woke surprised, alive.
I spied my father finished with his spade,
still unwilling to face what he could not face,
his torn hands cementing the blocks in place.