Thoughts pass through my mind
like the sparkle on water,
too quick to capture.
I like to look at it best from the land
with deep blue sky and deeper sea behind,
sunlight angled on its silver wood.
Surrounded by a spread of yellow grass
and nearer the edge than any other tree,
stripped of bark and pruned of finer twigs,
like a sculpture it defines its setting.
Though dead, soaked by squall and cracked by sun,
what is left portrays the essence of a tree
better than any ideal I could abstract:
a slow stretch of meristems exploring,
hardened into a massive wake of wood.
A few hours silence after
her man had taken the baby
to the hospital for a fever,
she was hitchhiking into town.
She lived a few miles up a dirt road,
wanted me to stop on the way
and wait while she used the pay phone.
I was pacing around the car
when I heard her shout “Meningitis!”
I offered to drive the seventy miles
to where her child had been moved,
listened to everything she said
while she struggled with her feelings.
A heron from the river
flew over the highway at dusk.
The distances evaporated.
The lobby looked bright and empty
through the plate glass. She pushed at
the door and became frantic
while I tried to tell her to pull it.
Her man seemed surprised at her mood
when she rushed in, asking, “Is she dead?”
She did not calm down, though he told her
“She’s not dead,” again and again.
The tiny Essence Bookshop in Briceland
now has a cafe filling half the space,
serving black bean tacos, smoothies, and muffins.
The people are talkative and friendly—
Yon and Ama, Owl and Colleen,
Joani, Rohn, T.J. and Allison,
who live up a nearby dirt road
on a piece of land they call, “Hoka Hey,”
which means, “It’s a good day to die,”
not that these folks act like Indian warriors.
Before I know it, I’m volunteering
to make smoothies and bake banana bread.
It’s called, “Pie in the Sky Cafe.”
Nobody’s making any money, but the food’s good.
In a photograph he sat on a bench,
rough hand holding the bread he had begged,
suspicious eyes on a weathered face,
coat and pants a bulging patchwork
of boot-tops sewn with rawhide.
Thirty years he trudged a circuit of towns
in rural Connecticut and New York,
three hundred sixty miles every five weeks,
through hot sun, rain, and blizzards,
carrying a French prayer book
He spoke some English, said his name was Isaac,
but usually just made grunts and gestures.
He would not enter any home or building.
He camped in caves and crudely built shelters,
kept each one stocked with dry firewood.
His creaking clothes and regular visits,
ever more punctual in later years,
made him a familiar enigma.
People knew exactly what he would do,
but no one understood why.
Newspapers published tales of his life
based on invention, often involving
a young man’s lost love and financial ruin,
leading to madness or failed revenge.
These fictions got him more food.
His penance ended by the embers
of his fire while he slept in a cave
one snowy March night in eighteen eighty nine.
His body was found by a carpenter
whose wife wanted to see the cave.
What couple could have stayed together
after arguments like those I saw?
The curvy blonde woman started giving me
spooky smiles and suggestive remarks.
I found her outside in the cold rain,
stooped over, planting flower starts
in the mud under her dripping roof.
Her living room was big and drafty,
only warm near her blazing woodstove,
where several large cats huddled together.
Her voice got soft and furry when she
picked up the biggest cat of all
and held him in her arms like a baby.
Her little boy rolled marbles on the floor.
Her kitchen was a tiny hallway
with sink and stove slightly tilted.
She fried some rice and veggies in her wok,
made a humongous salad.
At twilight she led me up a homemade ladder
through the hole in the kitchen ceiling
into her equally tiny bedroom.
She offered me no clues or words
but got annoyed if I didn’t sense
exactly how she wanted to be touched.
She wouldn’t kiss me, didn’t want my love.
After a few days, she went away,
going back to the man I thought
she didn’t want anymore.
Orange flames lap against
a dead fir snag soaked with rain
that will not feed them.
The house is completely lost.
There’s nothing we can do here.
The middle roof beams
fall into the fire first,
then the rear, the front.
People offer the owner’s
family places to stay,
bits of philosophy like,
“Look at it as a cleansing,
a new beginning.”
I don’t know why the family
seems comforted by this.
I would be very angry
if part of my life was erased.
The orange flames retreat slowly
beneath their own black ashes.
copyright © 1982 - 2011 Carl Miller
Drawing, “The Dead Tree Near Needle Rock”: 1982, fine-tip marker on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches.