I don’t know your stories. This one here
is the meanest one I’ve got or ever hope to.
Less than a year ago. Last of November,
but hot by God! I saw the Walker gang,
lugging a little buck. (A sandwich size.
It would be. That bunch doesn’t have the patience.
I’d passed up two no smaller, and in the end
the family had no venison that fall.)
I waved to them from the porch—they just looked up—
and turned away. I try to keep good terms
with everyone, but with a crowd like that
I don’t do any more than necessary.
It wasn’t too much cooler back inside.
A note from my wife on the table said the heat
had driven her and the kids to the town pond beach
to sit. That made some sense. It’s the last that will.
I peeked out quick through the window as the Walkers’
truck ripped past, and said out loud, “Damn fools!”
The old man, “Sanitary Jim” they call him,
at the wheel, the rifles piled between
him and “Step-and-a-Half,” the crippled son.
In back, all smiles and sucking down his beer,
“Short Jim” and the deer. Now Short Jim seems all right.
To see his eyes, in fact, you’d call him shy.
He doesn’t talk quite plain. Each word sounds like
a noise you’d hear from under shallow water.
I didn’t give it too much thought till later,
when the wife and kids came home, and wanted to know
what in Jesus’ name that awful smell was,
over the road? Turns out that Walker crew
had left their deer guts cooking in the sun.
And wasn’t that just like them? Swear to God,
to leave that mess beside a neighbor’s house
for stink, and for his dogs to gobble up?
And there was one thing more that puzzled me:
why wouldn’t they take home that pile of guts
to feed their dogs? A worthless bunch—
the dogs, I mean, as well as them. You’d think
they wouldn’t be above it. Every decent
dog they ever had was bullshit luck,
since every one they run is one they stole
or mooched out of the pound. You’ll see them all,
hitched to one lone post, dung to the elbows,
and every time they get themselves a new one,
he’ll have to fight it out until the others
either chew him up or give him up.
I guessed I’d do this feeding for them, so
I raked up all the lights into a bag
and after nightfall strewed them in their dooryard
with a note: “Since I’m not eating any deer meat,
I’d just as quick your guts rot somewhere else
as by my house.” And signed my actual name.
The whole thing’s clear as Judgment in my mind:
the sky was orange, the air so thick it burned
a man out of his senses. I’m the one.
And evening never seemed to cool me off,
though I’m the man whose aim is not to truck
in such a thing. I’ve lost most of my churching,
but don’t believe in taking up with feuds.
I usually let the Good Lord have His vengeance.
Nothing any good has ever grown
out of revenge. So I was told in school
when I slapped up Lemmie Watson, because he broke
the little mill I built down on the brook.
And so I learned. I spent the afternoons
that week indoors, and I’ve been different since,
till this one day. Then something else took over.
There passed a week: they stove my mailbox up.
At least I don’t know who in hell beside them
would have done it. I had a spare. (The Lord
knows why.) I cut a post and put it up,
and could have left the blessed fracas there,
and would have, as my wife advised me to.
And I agreed. I told myself all night,
my eyes wide open, lying there and chewing,
“Let it go.” And would have, as I claim,
but two days passed, and they came hunting coons
on this side of the ridge. I heard their hounds.
(God knows what they were running. Hedgehogs? Skunks?
It could have been.) Out on the porch,
I heard tick-tick. Dog paws, and all my dogs
began to yap and whine. I made a light.
Shaky, thin as Satan, a docktail bitch,
a black-and-tan (almost), was looking in.
I made of her. She followed me as if
I’d owned her all my life out to the kennel.
I stuck her in the empty run that was
Old Joe’s before I had to put him down.
I filled a dish with meal. She was a wolf!
The first square feed she’d had in quite a time.
My wife kept asking what I could be up to.
Likes to worry. Next day I drove clear
to Axtonbury, to the county pound.
“This dog’s been hanging round my house all week.
Don’t know who she belongs to.” Lies, of course.
I had her collar locked in the Chevy’s glovebox.
I wouldn’t harm a dog unless I had to,
and figured this one stood a better show
to make out at the pound than at the Walkers’.
But the Walkers didn’t know that. Driving home,
I flung the collar in their dooryard. After dark,
and spitting snow, six inches by next day,
late in December now, toward Christmas time.
Things shifted into higher gear despite me.
Or on account of me. Why not be honest?
I know that nowadays it’s not the fashion
to think a person’s born what he becomes;
but Sanitary Jim, his wife and family:
I never gave it too much thought but must
have figured right along that they belonged
to that great crowd of folks who don’t belong.
Their children wear their marks right on them: speech
you hardly understand, a rock and sway
where a normal boy would take an easy stride.
And in and out of jail. If they can’t find
another bunch to fight with, why, they’ll fight
with one another. (Sleep with one another
too, if talk can be believed. Somehow
two homely sisters are in the mix as well.)
Short Jim beat an uncle or a cousin
—I disremember—beat him right to death.
(It’s not the fashion either nowadays
to keep a violent man in jail. A month, no more,
goes by, and Short Jim’s on the town again.)
But back to what I just began. The Walkers
are as bad as banty roosters, and I figured
they were meant somehow to be. Where most of us
are meant to eat one little peck of dirt,
they eat a truckload. Is it any wonder,
then, I didn’t make a special point
of mixing with them? No more than I would
with any crowd that filthed itself that way.
But mix with them I did. It seemed as if
their style of working things reached up and grabbed me.
I was in the game so quick it turned my head.
The snow came on, the first big storm of winter,
that night I pulled the trick with the docktail’s collar.
In the morning, barely filled, I saw their tracks
around my kennel. But my runs both are solid
chain-link, and the doors are padlocked shut.
They mean a thing or two to me, those dogs.
I keep the keys right on me. No one else
—no family, no good friend—can spring a dog
of mine. That way, I know they’re there, or with me.
I’m only puzzled that they never growled. They do
as a rule. I was surely glad the Walkers hadn’t
had the sense to bring along some poison.
A dog’s a dog, which means he’s five-eighths stomach.
Thinking on this gave me bad ideas.
But I’ll get to that when time is right. For now,
I called myself a lucky fool, out loud,
and bolted both dogs shut inside their houses
nights. I judged this thing would soon blow over.
I burned a yardlight too, which I’d never done.
And that (I guessed) was the last they’d come past dark.
You know, the funny part of this whole battle
up to now, when you consider who
I’d got myself involved with, was that neither
side had come right out into the open.
The only thing I knew for sure they’d done
was leave a mess of guts out on my lawn.
The only thing for sure they knew of me—
that I returned that mess to its right home.
The mailbox and the collar and the tracks. . . .
For all we either knew, the Boss was making
visions in our eyes which, feeling righteous,
we took upon our selves to figure out.
And since, between the parties, I guessed I
had better claim to righteousness than they did,
I’m the one that—thinking back—began
to read the signs according to my will.
How many times have village hoodlums stove
a mailbox up? Or just plain village kids?
How many times, to mention what comes next,
has one old drunk shitkicker or another
raised some hell outside Ray Lawson’s Auction
and Commission Sales on Friday night? And still,
I judged it was the Walkers who had slashed
all four of my new pickup’s summer tires.
(Four months had passed.) And judged it quick as God.
The pickup spraddled like a hog on ice. It cost me
two hundred dollars just to run it home.
Next day I passed Short Jim as he came out
of Brandon’s store and sized him up, and looked
at him: a man who’d killed another man,
but shyness in his eyes. He looked away.
And if I’d looked away just then. . . . Instead,
I saw a basket full of winter apples,
Baldwins mostly, full of slush and holes.
No wonder Brandon had that crop on sale!
Four cents each was asking more than enough
for winter apples still unsold in April.
If the top one hadn’t had a hole as big,
almost, as half a dollar. . . . By God, where
would we be now? But there it was, the hole,
and I got notions. Maybe fate is notions
that you might have left alone, but took instead.
I did. I bought that apple, and another
just for show. And a box of pellets, too—
more rat pellets than I ever needed,
more than I could stuff into that hole
and still have stay enough in the rotten skin
to hold them in enough to fool a hog
that he had an apple. Walkers’ hog, I mean.
They penned her on the far side of the road
from where that firetrap shack of theirs was built.
I didn’t set right out. That apple sat
as much as seven days up on a post
of metal in the shed, where even rats
—Lord! let alone my kids—could never reach it.
And it sat inside my mind. Especially nights.
Or say it burned, the while I cooled myself
—or tried to do, with every nerve and muscle—
in bed, and said the same thing over and over:
“Nothing good will ever grow from feuds.”
And just to get the apple out of mind,
spoke such damn foolishness you never heard:
“Old Mother Hubbard,” “Stars and Stripes Forever”
(tried to get the words of one to go
along with the rhymes and rhythms of the other).
Then went down that seventh night, as if it was
another person who was going down
inside the shed (because the person I
believed I was kept up the sermon: “Nothing
any good from any feud,” and so on),
picked the apple down, and put it in
my pocket, and—the moon was full—began
the uphill climb across the ridge. To Walkers’.
Stopped for breath at height of land, I turned
to see the house, where everyone was sleeping,
wondered what they dreamed, and if their dreams
were wild as mine become when moon’s like that—
they say there nothing in it, but as God
will witness me, a full moon fills my head,
asleep or not, with every bad idea.
One spring, the moon that big, a skunk came calling
in the shed, and my fool tomcat gave a rush.
The smell was worse than death. It woke me up,
if I was sleeping (I’d been trying to),
and till the dawn arrived, for hours I felt
the stink was like a judgement: every sin
from when I was a child till then flew back
and played itself again before my eyes.
High on the ridge, I felt I might reach out
and touch that moon, it was so close, but felt
that if I reached it, somehow it would burn.
It was a copper color, almost orange,
like a fire that’s just beginning to take hold.
Your mind plays tricks. You live a certain while
and all the spooky stories that you read
or hear become a part of memory,
and you can’t help it, grown or not, sometimes
the damnedest foolishness can haunt you. Owls,
for instance. I know owls. How many nights
do they take up outside, and I don’t think
a thing about it? That night, though,
a pair began close by me. I’d have run,
the Devil take me, if the light had been
just one shade brighter, I’d have run right home
to get out of the woods or else to guard
the house, the wife, the kids. I don’t know which.
A rat or mouse would shuffle in the leaves
and I would circle twenty yards around it.
I was close to lost until I found the brook
and waded it on down. It was half past two.
The moon kept working higher till I saw
the hog shed just across the road from Walkers’ house.
There wasn’t that much difference in the two.
I’m a man can’t stand a mess. But they,
the boys and Sanitary Jim. . . . Well, they
can stand it. Seems that that’s the way
that they prefer it. That hovel for the pig
was made of cardboard, chimney pipe, and wanes.
They’d driven I don’t know how many sections
of ladder, side by side, into the mud
for fencing. Come the thaw each year, the ground
will heave that ladder up, and then you’ll find
a pig in someone’s parsnips. Anyway,
I looked the matter over, and the worry
that I’d felt about the thing that I was doing—
well, it went away. I felt as pure
as any saint or choirboy hunkered there.
I crept up on my knees and clapped the gate
(a box spring from a kid’s bed) so the pig
would have a peek. I don’t know why, exactly,
but I felt like watching as she took the apple
from my hand. It wouldn’t do to leave it.
She just inhaled it, didn’t even chew.
I backed up to the brook and watched some more,
then stepped in quick, because that poison sow
began to blow and hoot just like a bear.
The job was done. I hadn’t left a track.
I don’t know just what you’ll make of this:
I fairly marched back up across the ridge
as if I made that climb four times a day.
The air was cold and sweet and clear, the way
it is when you can see the moon so plain.
I walked on to a beat and sang the hymns
—or sang them to myself—I’d got by heart
so many years before: “Old Rugged Cross”
and “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Amazing
Grace,” and never noticed how the cold
had numbed my feet till I was back in bed.
No one woke up. I slept two righteous hours.
You jump into a feud, and every tricks’
like one more piece of kindling on the fire.
That’s how I think of it, and you’ll see way.
Come evening of the next day, I was sick.
You don’t go paddling nighttimes in a brook
in April, and expect it’s just a trick.
All night it felt like someone had a flatiron
and kept laying it between my shoulder blades.
My feet and legs were colored like old ashes.
My throat was sore enough I couldn’t speak.
My wife, who didn’t have a small idea
of where I’d been beside beneath the quilts,
lay it all to how I carried on.
“You’ve heard the old expression, sick with worry.’
That’s what you’ve brought yourself, I think, from scheming
on those godforsaken Walkers.” She was right,
but not the way she thought she was. In time,
there wasn’t any use, I had to go
down to the clinic, twenty miles away.
You know those places: wait there half a day,
then let them pound you, scratch their heads, and scratch
some foolishness on a scrap of paper, wait
the other half while the druggist dubs around
to find the thing he’s after. Come home poor.
If it was only poor that I came home!
I drove through town at fifteen miles an hour.
Swear to God I couldn’t wheel it faster,
the way I was. It was a job to push
the throttle down, and I could scarcely see,
so blinked my eyes a time or two when I reached
the flat out by the pond. Above the ridge
the sky was copper-orange, and thick black smoke
was flying up to heaven, straight as string.
I thought I felt the heat. (But that was fever.)
By Jesus, that was my house. “Chimney fire,”
I said outloud, or loud as I could talk,
my throat ached so. The words were just a whisper,
and they sounded wrong the minute they came out.
I felt like I would die from all this sickness.
They called me “walking wounded” at the clinic:
pneumonia, but just barely, in one lung;
but now I felt my blood would burst the skin
and I’d just up and die inside that truck.
I squinched my eyes and lay the throttle on.
I meant to do some good before I died.
My wife was wrestling with a metal ladder
that had sat outside all winter, though I’d meant
to get it under cover every day.
I used it cleaning chimneys. It was stuck
in puddle ice beside the western wall.
I jumped out of the truck before it stopped,
and fell, and got back up, sweet Christ,
I tried to run, and every step I took
was like a step you take in dreams, the space
from road to house seemed fifteen thousand miles.
I stumbled to the shed and grabbed an ax
and put it to the ground to free the ladder,
but the ground just wouldn’t give the damned thing up,
and every lick was like I swung the ax
from under water. I had no more force
than a kid or cripple. My kid, meanwhile, cried
from behind a big storm window, “Daddy? Daddy?”
It sounded like a question. I gave up
and tried to call back up to him. I couldn’t.
My words were nothing more than little squeaks,
and when they did come out, they were not plain.
And so my wife began to call the boy,
“Throw something through the window and jump out.”
He threw a model boat, a book, a drumstick.
He couldn’t make a crack. I flung the ax.
It missed by half a mile. I threw again
and broke a hole, and scared the boy back in.
That was the last I saw him. Like a woman
sighing, that old house huffed once and fell.
Out back, beside the kennel, our baby daughter
danced and giggled to hear the howling dogs.
I went into dead faint. And Hell could come
for all of me. And that is what has come.
Thirty years gone by since Lemmie Watson
broke my little mill of sticks and weeds
down by the brook, and I kicked the tar from him
and stayed indoors all week when school let out.
And Mrs. What’s-Her-Name, I disremember,
fussing at her desk, would shake her head
and ask outloud if one small paddle wheel
was worth all this? I had to answer No.
I had to write it down, “No good can grow
from any feud.” I wrote it fifty times
each afternoon. And then one afternoon
the Walker crew lay down a string of guts
across the road. . . . The part of life you think
you’ve got done living lies in wait like Satan.
For me, it was revenge. And what to do
right now? The house is gone, the boy, and I
believe I know just how they came to be.
But do I? Do I know what led to what
or who’s to blame? This time I’ll let it go.
No man can find revenge for a thing like this.
They say revenge is something for the Lord.
And let Him have it. Him, such as He is.