Curtis Bauer

A Fence Line Running Through It

for William Schwarting

The machine shed is damp,

the dirt floor milled to powder

from years of boot and tractor

and machine traffic.

I look for the spade

I used when I was young,

when my grandfather

said dig and

I dug holes the depth

I’d been taught

so the posts would stand,

hold the miles of barbed and hog

wire dividing our ground

from Burgys, Possehls,

Stanersons and Folkmans,

dividing their cattle, their

land from ours.


Dig, he would say, and all morning,

afternoon, until it rained,

until dark, until I couldn’t

lift the spade and grub

and he said enough,

I dug through dry brown

until it turned yellow clay or

black earth caked to the tip

of the steel. He taught me to measure

strength by depth, narrow the hole

around the oiled post, and

sturdy the line he’d laid

before I was old enough

to blister from work,

acquire the knowledge of straight,

of strength, cool soil, rusted

staples and splintered wood,

the knowledge of bending

spikes new, splicing wire,

swinging a hammer down hard,

the ache from hours of digging,

calloused hands and sunburn.

He trained me to rake,

tamp, stomp, pack dirt and clay,

the weight of the earth around the post,

its strength into the line.


Now the hammers, pliers and cutters

are gone. No rolls of wire

hang from the beams. No boxes                                                             

of staples and spikes jam the shelves.

The tamping stick is broken. Someone

has wrapped duct tape around the spade handle;

the steel has rusted brown and rough; a crack

climbs from the tip to the mud-caked neck.


He would say it is useless,

that things are not

like they were, and I

could repeat his words

but I have left the machine shed;

my hands have lost their calloused ridges;

my sweat, strain and ache are buried, and I

wander up and down this gravel road

dissecting Hilton Township.

I try to avoid the snow flakes and wind.


I want to touch the hands

my grandfather couldn’t describe,

the hands that woke him on a plane above

Florida where he dozed

with his hand on my wife’s

knee, hers on his arm.

Outside, there was endless blue—

deep and wary like his eyes—

and I knew I could not know

what he thought

when he realized the wife beside him,

the curve of her knee

was not his beside him on a wagon

filled with ear corn

they’d picked by hand, but mine,

in a plane at 30,000 feet going home.


He said he’d been dreaming,

his brother woke him

to say their steers were in the Newkirk corn.

It seemed dark and cold for summer.

And the hands, he said, were no longer his brother’s;

they touched his cheek, pulled back the blankets and gripped

his fingers. After that, he couldn’t tell

if he ached from grasping his spade, from picking

ear corn, or aging sixty more years and outliving his wife.


He tried to explain while we cruised above farms

and cities that the touch felt like a woman’s

when she falls asleep holding your thumb.

It was smooth and trembled like grain

trickling from a bin, he said.

It felt like cold wind on a hot day.



From the poetry collection Fence Line (BkMk Press 2004)