The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Kerry James Evans

The Crow Child

 

And by the sword shalt thou live,
            and shalt serve thy brother;
            and it shall come to pass

            when thou shalt have the dominion,
            that thou shalt break
            his yoke from off thy neck.

                        —Genesis 29:40



                        You are the extra teeth the dentist yanked with vice grips,
the spinal cord, the bike chain
            ripped from my right arm,
                                    the reversal of marriage,
                of science, of a man
                            reaching for bread
                                                to soak up drippings.


                                                            You move backwards through time.
                                                            You call me into a world

                                                            where Alabama is a jar of marbles
                                                            busted on playground pavement,

                                                            where surely you would have spun willy-nilly
                                                            onto your malformed back.

                                                            Go ahead.
                                                            Curse the body I stole.


                                                            *         *         *


I thought you were a lie, another manic tale Mother
spun to keep me from wandering into the neighbor’s field.

This morning she called and told the story again:
He fell out after you were born. For a while I claimed you.

I laughed when you flapped your black wings
behind me as I jogged around a ragged formation.

Ruck march. One hundred-twelve soldiers. Thirty pounds
of useless equipment bounced on our backs.

I claimed you were the guide-on I carried,
but you were no flag fitted with parapets.

You were no castle waving crimson in my hands.
Those weren’t your blisters popping on the spade.

                                                You weren’t even the crow.


                                                *         *         *


                                                I threw rocks at an empty silo,
but it wasn’t my mother’s womb
            I heard ringing,
                                    it was a grain bin
                        rusting in the same field where our parents
                                        learned to grind
                                                on blue velvet
                                    until their hips rubbed raw,
                                                where they lit cigarettes
                                                                        for the first time
                                                            and learned
                                                      how to squirrel,
                        how to lie down sideways,
upside-down—
                        Does that hurt
                                    when I throw your feet over your head?



                                                            Here,
                                                            the moon is a bucket of curd
                                                            tilted on its side,

                                                            and it is here,
                                                            where you latched
                                                            to my body,

                                                            your brain
                                                            filling
                                                            my carotid artery.


                                                  *         *         *


Think of our mother who, at sixteen, carried the moon
until she released. Her stirruped feet.

Her bowels shaking loose, and me
dropping into the bucket arms of a doctor.

 

                        She gave me three names.
                                    She wanted me to be the stethoscope,
                                                                                    the gloved hand,
                                                            but I am no doctor.
                                                I am no moon.


                                                When she calls, I think of her double-wide,
                        her poisoned glue.
I think of the room she just painted blue
                                                blitzkrieged by hail
                                                            thundering a tin roof.


                                                                        In the living room, the rot
                                                                        of tobacco spit stains the floor.

                                                                        I see you in that stain.
                                                                        Look past it.

                                                                        Listen to the sound of white-trash
                                                                        decadence, the trilling air,

                                                                        the room half-filled with empty pockets,
                                                                        including my own.


                                    The Excedrin bottle still rattles on the counter.
Watch her stuff every fat pill
            from the blue bottle
                        into a cold-sore mouth.
                                                Think of yourself,
                        think of my arms
                                    cradling your lungs
                                                            in her belly.


     Look at your mother grow old.


                                                            You were still sinking in the toilet
                        when she threw the bottle at me.


                                                                                    Get Out!


            I will never carry her into heaven.


                                                    *         *         *


                                   Tell me, Brother, in what classroom
did you learn to praise a woman?
                        Mother sips Mountain Dew,
                                                Our history is full of dead twins, James.


                                                She goes on about a lumber mill spitting out studs
            in Grandfather’s backyard,
                        but nobody wants to know
                that it burned,
                                    that you are a myth,
                            that our grandfather
                                                replaced cotton with corn.


                                                                        That he was a twin.
                                                                        That by the time

                                                                        I came along,
                                                                        the land stopped speaking.


                          Maybe she’s right. Maybe you are the voice
                tilling the soil.
    Maybe gas still runs cheap
                            at the ’76 station and mules
                                                            still turn the sorghum mill,
                                                    and it’s not the 21st-century.
                                   It’s not air-conditioned combines
                                                         or Monsanto’s overpriced seeds.


                                                                *         *         *


                                        Corn snakes through grapevines,
                                        your mangled fingers.

                                        Tadpoles chase kernels in the cow pond.
                                        In the well-house, crickets wail,

                                        and the flies, the flies still praise
                                        ham-hocks in the meat shed. Is it true?


                                                                           Do you calm
                                                                                the hogs
                                                                                          before they eat their young?


                                                                *         *         *


                                                    When I return, I navigate shallow rows
                beneath a harvest moon. Here,
                            I might have learned to love you,
                     poking with the toes
                                       of my boots, puddles
                                                                where our faces might have melded,
                                                    where corn stalks
                                               grow into walls, your shapeless
                                                                                        mouth forming an O.


                               Think of the smokes we’d steal from the tool shed
        and the half-inhale, the lukewarm
                    bourbon poured out while we walk
              with our heads down
                                            and you whisper,
                                                        Shakerag Road.


                                                                             I recall my first kill.
                                                                             Eight point.
                                                                             Buckshot.


                                         I’m supposed to say you weren’t there,
                 but I heard something scream
                             high in the pines
                                                    before the belly and all of that blood
                                             soaked the ground.
                                                                Were you there?


                            Do you kill tadpoles
                            before naming them,
                            before plucking them by their tails

                            with your chalk-white
                            hands, asking,
                            Do you need these to catch catfish?

                            Do you kill the screaming crickets
                            in the well-house
                            where you stay?

                            Stay there, damp.
                            Scream with those crickets.
                            Hop around in the dark.


                                                                *         *         *


                                                    When I told my wife—
    over breakfast—that I strangled you
                            in the womb,
                                        she drank her coffee.
                                                                She asked, Is that true?
                                                    Or is that some craziness
                                        your folks told you?

                                                        What was I supposed to say?


                            For all I know, you’re buried
                            in the bottom
                            of a hospital trash bin,

                            but it’s the story of your death,
                            how Mother said
                            it would make me stronger.


                                                  It’s the story that keeps me awake,
                                                                          why I flank deer and wonder
                                                        if you are there, nestled
                                              between hooves, breathing
                                                                              and blinking your ghostly eyes.
                                      Our father claims to this day that you—phantom
              of a child—crawled up Bee Mountain
                          and down the cracked back
                                                 of Marion County into the house
                                                             they built. He claims
                          your ghost wrecked his marriage.
                                      Blame me,
                                                 your origami spine.


                                                            *         *         *


              Last summer I drove up and wanted to burn
              every goddamned field, but
              they weren’t mine to burn.

              I checked the well-house,
              opening the tiny door
              with its stubborn hinges, and when

              light squeaked in to all that dark,
              the crickets were all
              dead, save two huddled

              in a patch of cobwebs beneath the water pump.
              You never breathed that stagnant air,
              but I did, and I know what I saw

              leaking from the spigot. It was cold,
              and it was steady. It was you. It was me.

 

 

 

KERRY JAMES EVANS is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon). He currently lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

 

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