Only that it was a place where snow
and ice could seal off whole sections
for half the winter, where the ground—
even when you dug down to it—could not
If you had someone to bury,
you waited for spring thaw. Children
died from diphtheria and scarlet fever,
old-timers came down with pneumonia,
horses reared up suddenly in the barn.
The coffin would be kept in the parlor
for three days and nights. The watchers
took turns. After the funeral, neighbors
helped carry the box up to the attic
or set it out in one of the back rooms
so it would stay cold but not freeze.
Before the men tacked down the lid,
they filled it up the rest of the way
with rock salt. This was a custom
learned from their grandparents—
how to make it through till spring,
how to handle hardship on their own.
But there were times when no one lasted,
fierce winters when the wood gave out,
when there was nothing left to eat,
no hay to pitch out for the stock,
no way to break down through the ice
on the horse trough, or get the pump
With no heat, no money
for seed, they knew they had no choice
but to pack up and leave—head back
to town, try to get a stake together,
go somewhere else. They brought along
what they could carry. Everything else
was left behind: piles of old clothes,
root cellar full of empty Mason jars,
string of peppers tied to the rafters.
This is a long migration, a traveling
back and forth, over many harsh years.
Even now, people move off the land—
realize they’re not going to make it,
understand there’s no point in trying.
The old farmhouses are stripped clean,
emptied out, made ready for lightning
or for a final warming fire built
in the middle of the parlor floor
by some transient, some jobless family
camped for the night.
knee-high around the pump, the catalpa
holds up its brown and purple flowers.
Wind, searching along the kitchen shelf,
knocks a last jelly glass to the floor.
Soot bleeds from the hole in the wall
where the flue went in.
if no fire breaks out, cold weather
clamps down. The freeze and thaw
eats at the plaster—spitting out nails,
breathing in dust, over and over—
gnawing it to the marrow.
Now and then
when I drive past one of these places
set back up the lane—doors unhinged,
windows broken out, lilacs choked up,
willow drooping in the side yard—
I’m never in much of a hurry to stop,
Sometimes I sit there
in the driveway for a few minutes,
thinking about it, knowing that if I
step up to the front porch, or find
my way through the weeds to the pump,
there will be a slight breath of wind
just ahead of me, something rustling
through the timothy grass.
It will pause,
stopping each time I do, waiting
until everything gets quiet again.
I can’t catch up with it, or come
face to face with whatever it is.
I can sense only that it’s pleased—
by the way it turns, every so often,
to make sure I’m still coming.