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Time of Life
by Don Narkevic

W. Va. Hospital for the Insane
Name:        Stephen Dunn   
Admitted:     12 December, 1889

A time to scatter stones, a time to gather them.

Twelve, old enough, Pa says
to tote stone unearthed
while plowing virgin sod.
A crow, black as an undertaker,
perches on the limb of a dead oak
above turned earth while robins
prospect bug-teeming soil.
When Pa cusses a rock,
the mule brays, and the crow flies,
a solitary speck, swallowed
by a barren blue sky.

As I stack, I feel the burden.
Each rock weighs me down,
anchors me to my father’s ways.
As I trace the horizon
of fence I mend each spring,
I spy the mule, pulling Pa,
his dead weight dragged
through a nest of copperheads.

Twelve, old enough, Ma says
to bear the pine with my uncles,
their necks chaffed by starched collars;
old enough to bust sod,
like Pa, stubborn
at first, but surrendering to the spade;
old enough to top the grave with stone
from fields I am old enough to man.
A time to be silent, a time to speak.

Ma cries when she sees me
in Pa’s hemmed courtin’ britches,
smelling of her cedar dowry chest.

All evening, silent as silk worms,
Mary Ellen Crowder and her mom
work on a yellow Easter gown
trimmed with English lace.
After reading the Gazette to shreds,
Mr. Crowder mutters he ain’t wasting another candle.
As I watch him climb stairs to bed,
I clear my throat, but he doesn’t stop.
Mrs. Crowder pokes me with a sewing needle.
My yelp catches the old man’s attention:
Speak  y’ur peace.

My voice cracks like a barn door
when I ask for Mary Ellen’s hand.
He studies his daughter, blushing, staring
the varnish off the wood floor.
After glancing at his nodding wife,
he waves the folded newspaper and grunts.
Mother and daughter hug.
Crying, they run upstairs, passing the old man
who snarls, ‘nough said.

A time to kill, a time to heal.

In the crater of a cannon blast,
my rifle jams. As the enemy approaches,
I mount bayonet, play possum.
When I feel hands
trying to remove my boots,
I thrust at a boy, maybe twelve,
his dirty face, bewildered.
Sorry, mister,
he huffs,
his hands holding his gut,
but I thought you was dead.
The boy falls at my feet.
To stop the bleeding, I wad my kerchief
inside the wound. Heaving the body
over my shoulder, I double-time it
to the rear of the line.

When I reach the surgeon’s tent,
Bloodstains confuse the steward;
we both get triaged.
Ain’t nothin’ wrong with you,
he snaps and spits chew
toward a row of lifeless soldiers,
indicating where to lug the body.

As I squat beside the dead,
strung out like a mess of fish,
I wonder if it’s right
to remove my kerchief. When two men
in blood-soaked aprons line up three more,
I stuff the sticky cloth in my pocket.
Hungry, I scrounge for something
else to chew on.

A time to be born, a time to die.

After five pregnancies, I understand
a woman’s need for things useful
after birth: diaper flannel, lamp filler,
ash pail, dishpan, wash basin.
In thirty minutes, I can build a fire
and provide the midwife with hot water,
enough for triplets. I use hickory,
a savory wood that smells like a growing home.

But that winter of Mary Ellen’s sixth,
when a blizzard staves off womenfolk,
I figure I’ve witnessed enough births
to deliver: I know when to say, Push,
how to catch, how to tie the string,
cut the cord, wait for afterbirth.

A girl, Ellen, arrives, pretty
as a cask of two-penny nails.

But Mary Ellen won’t stop bleeding.
By time I rustle a doctor, he agrees
I done all I could, shakes my red hand,
dispenses condolences,
and the name of a wet nurse.

Waiting for thaw, Mary Ellen sleeps
in the ice house,
while I fill lamps, empty ash pail and dishpan,
line up wash basins,
and ready hot bath water for children,
enough for six.

A time to keep, a time to cast away.

A year after the burial,
while I work the fields,
a stone’s throw from the grave,
I arrange for a church woman
to sort through Mary Ellen’s clothes.
Like a silent moth, I tell her to divest
the closet of every stitch Mary Ellen sewed.

That night, after tucking in the children,
I retire to bed. Through the gloom
of a half moon, in her vanity chair I see
her resurrected form, resplendent
in that yellow Easter gown,
trimmed with English lace.
But when I call her name, Mary Ellen,
I realize my folly, understand the need
to keep a reminder of beauty
that succumbs
neither to rot, rust, nor moth.

A time to mourn, a time to dance.

I give Ellen away to a young man
who dances like a foal finding its legs.
Pinned to her sleeve, something old
and borrowed, a ribbon of English lace.

or a while we waltz.
After the music ends, I hear the swish
of her bridal gown in the corn broom
I use next day to sweep out her room.
Of habit, I fetch more wood
than needed to build a fire
I will forget to tend,
and as the hearth grows cold,
by the dying light, I thread a needle
to restore a prodigal strip of English lace.

A time to embrace, a time to be far from embraces.

As I wait by the kitchen fireplace,
someone I don’t know hugs me.
Rosa, the colored cook,
tells me it’s okay,
says the woman’s name is Ellen.
Ellen asks me if I want to hug her.
I shake my head.
The woman cries, but I don’t
see a wound.
Maybe she’s a new admission.

When Rosa asks me to lay a blaze
so she can warm her bunions,
that woman asks if she can watch.
Rosa nods. I think it queer.

As I start, Rosa adds,
What you doin’, you ‘splain to Miss Ellen.
Reluctant, I mutter, Open the throat damper.
Rosa says.
Check for an updraft!
More like it.

Maintain an inch-thick ash bed as an insulator.
On the andiron, set an 8-inch diameter backlog
against the rear wall. Prevents brick cracking
and projects heat forward.
. . . I stop. I forget the next step.
I’ve started a thousand fires . . .

That woman tells me to set a 5-inch diameter log
against the vertical holder of the andirons.
She’s right. I do so but pretend I know and continue.
Between the logs place a handful of kindling.
To start the fire, use fatwood.
It has no pine-pitch to throw sparks.

The know-it-all chirps in,
Nature’s one-match fire starter.

To maintain the fire,
I advise,
use hardwoods: oak, cherry, maple . . .

Hickory’s my favorite,
she interrupts again.
But her eyes, dancing flames,
offer a comforting radiance, like a wife’s
or daughter’s.

Mine, too,
I say. It smells like . . .
But my mind will not retrieve memory.
Like a growing home? she asks.
For a moment my mind resurrects.
I know this woman.

Yes, daughter, I say, like a growing home,
and Ellen smiles, starts to whimper.
But like a bobber floating on the water,
pulled under without warning,
my mind reels back into darkness.

As I start the fire, I let the odd woman
place her hand on my shoulder.
By the time flames leap like lake trout,
the lady’s tears have dried
and I feel a familiar warmth.



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