wombs—nests aloft—branches brought prostrate—mendicant—by ice storm—by gale scald and scrape—twigs scattered—broken sigils in hoary muck—birdsong blown elsewhere—we hold hands—space between our palms—(just in case)—your grip is steady—your body has not grown tired of carrying emptiness—not wax made soft in sun—in timberline’s crepuscular dusk—it’s like this vacation—at some point, the drive home—to relive is not the same as re-live—we send postcards—compact lists of adventures and errata—in college, we didn’t disprove Zeno with rigor—he was just wrong—but we age—gather dust like curioed porcelain—speckle like eggshells—he had at least one truth—on this arrow, we arrive at many points—and pass through—whether we are ready
The saints of anatomy and geography have withheld their blessing from me. Or genetic folklore’s subconscious din: once you enter Franklin County for good, a subdermal frequency snaps the body’s filament (colloquially: the soul) like piano wire. It’s tucked somewhere behind the sternum or nestled amid my vocal cords (see: the saints, their coveted blessing). Backwoods IED, jury-rigged not to explode but unspool, every effort made to bring the whole body back—brows and lashes, ribs, entire arms and legs, balled spine. In Appalachia, it is tradition to mistranslate elemental earth as wood, and so I am stacked as kindling of various lengths and diameters. Dad says bring him in for a look. Dad meant he will toss me into the side yard’s brush pile. It is as old as the house, a protected ruin of sorts. A brush pile has seasons: water-log, snake or rabbit den, bare-tree mimicry, and snow-husked. Men of matchbook and lighter conceal their hands as if to say you either have the flame or you don’t. (More than one salival gaze, however.) After water-log, the rattlesnake weed thickens, a record harvest of whiteness. See, he can make something of himself yet.
Like her ancestors, Axe is a spark made manifest when ripped from steam-cloaked water.
Raised high, brief weightless ecstasy, offered to the first upright cedar log.
Axe and Man sit beside a fire of her making.
Axe reads tessellated folktales imprinted on firewood’s innards before they burn away.
Embers pulses out their last vestige of heat as Man fell asleep, upright.
Fingers as sinews desperate for her handle. Hands a womb calloused from overuse.
Axe imagines Man’s arms could carry her forever, if only detached.
Axe pauses. The exact length of time to commit, then ask forgiveness.
Axe is eager.
A tincture of creek water, moonshine, tobacco spit, sap, and an unknown quantity of blood.
(Did I mention Axe was eager?)
Under the megalopolis of stars, Axe shines as a crescent moon.
Axe invokes a spell that comes in sawdust and wind.
Axe rubs herself on Man’s flannel-dressed stumps.
Axe remembers when the hollow echoed with jubilee.
Axe will have her Man, the only one who ever made her sing.
The captain pushes the throttle forward. Gulls circle and squawk in celebration. Gulls stretch their wings and discuss the length of her journey. The captain’s unbrushed teeth are dulled with film. Another option: gulls share their forefather’s stories about teeth, before fattening themselves on finger-shorn bread. The captain reaches the harbor’s threshold. Gulls turn back from the tugboat, the sharp-toothed whitecaps, the ocean eager to fill their mouths full regardless of whether they are ready.
Mist dissolves the coastline like the slow onset of TV static over late-night weather forecasts. The captain’s map shatters into tiny pieces, each sprouting wings and flying off in different directions. Wind scrubs smooth the tugboat’s wake. The captain did not learn the name of constellations in school. On overcast nights, stargazing is simple. Though in her recklessness, the captain realizes there is a chance she crashes into herself headed back.
Before mapflight, the captain marked a route around Greenland. Thrice daily, she prays for glaciers. After each, the tugboat’s engine grinds into a different octave. As if it too has teeth dulled dockside. As if ecstatic that it could melt and be molded into something new. As if the captain had fallen asleep mid-prayer on the throttle. The captain is following old Norse sailing routes. The world is wholly discovered. No one writes stories about successful merchant marines. The captain keeps her eyes open for the serpentine or the sharp, a lore created by shortness of breath.
The captain wakes, and the stern and bow have flipped positions. The captain attempts to drop anchor, gather her bearings. The anchor is afraid of water but fondly remembers sweat dripping from her blacksmith’s brow. A portside-to-starboard orbit, anchor undoing its own baptism each revolution. The tugboat is cocooning. The hull tears open, exposing gills. The blacksmith’s furnace makes all flesh. The captain pulls a knife from her belt. A snap and unfurling. A stray fiber grazes the captain’s cheek. The captain is reminded that love is noise and spectacle before anything else.
The kitchen is through the engine room. Therefore, the captain has long since been deafened. She exists in perpetual engine din. The tugboat ran dry of diesel days ago, but it pities the captain and continues. The captain is an engine that runs on echoes. The echoes are like waves that gather strength to ascend the beach. The tugboat is nearly empty and weightless but for its captain haunted by throbbing gears. The captain is the ghost of the anchor. The captain climbs deckside and screams. Her voice is the rapture’s trumpet blared earthside, hollowed by distance and rending metal.
The ocean boils in pockets. The tugboat’s hull glows as if repainted red. The captain believes Greenland may never have existed. The captain believes Greenland was a mass of migrating birds all seeking to perch on the same rock. The captain believes some novice deckhand invented Greenland through faulty morse code. The captain nets a bottle bobbing over the transom. Are you flotsam or jetsam? The captain finds this question interesting. Does it matter how firmly she braces against the railing? Does it matter if she doesn’t have the latest swell map? The captain is inspired by the thought she can imagine herself found.
There’s a buoy in the distance. The tugboat remembers it’s a tugboat and adjusts course. The tugboat slows, and the captain attaches its hawser. The buoy doesn’t budge. Deck board stretch apart. The captain’s ears fill with wailing. The captain buckets ocean water onto the engines. A great steam cloud. A magic trick. Water recedes around the buoy and tugboat. The captain continues until there is only desert. A tugboat aground is a horse in a river. Unbound by the tide, the moon’s arc frazzles. Scales fall from her ears, and she hears the silence between waves. This new continent is all shoreline: preparing to depart and already arriving.
Black into black – an aftermath of ripples. Night as ouroboros. Night the cascade of mirrors reflecting past light. Soft lapping. Like the piling, I’m age-pocked. Barnacle scars between waves. Beard flecks, the first flurries before the weather finally turns.
Beyond the pier, there is nothing unless you count everything too far away. A lusterless hospital outcropping. Oscillating helicopter light, blade whirl dulled into hiss of swaying reeds. The mail carrier traverses the breach weekly. If not for love, then loneliness, the next best thing.
From the pile, she passes me a stack of unwritten letters. Not blank pages: coffee haloes, jam or faded blood on the corners, doodles. One page is crumpled and spit-stained. Held in the hands, lodged in the throat: what comes after forgetting words?
She wants to stay. Proof: her empty pouch as kindling beneath her van. The cormorant explodes forth, laughably fish-choked. Unable to breathe and still unsated. I look at her and begin to relax my jaw.