BACK ROAD CALLER
FIRST SNOW AS I SPLIT WOOD
Thin snow falling into
Valley fog, quiets everything,
No bird call, nothing flying.
The splitting wedge and hammer
Echo over the pasture
While the flakes open bigger
For no reason other than snow.
And I straighten my sweaty back
To watch this world, lend a tongue
And taste it melt.
Four dozen eggs under her arm,
That’s how she greeted us.
We weren’t coming for eggs
But for a currant bush
Waiting in the dooryard
Wrapped tight in burlap.
I lifted it into the back
Of the truck since that’s
What I was hired to do,
Waited in the early sun
Leaning against the tailgate
While the two old ladies talked.
And with the eggs still under
Her arm she also turned to speak
With me, eyes dazzled like light
In water, checkered blue flannel
Shirt, out-worn by all of her
Sons and now on her back; torn
At the elbows, but warm.
Everything is just right
On this hill farm and I’ve only
Been here 5 minutes. Crows flap
West to east from the wood’s edge
Long over the flat face of pasture,
A manure spreader is backed up
To the kitchen door stacked neat
With stovewood, the lawn is mowed,
And we’ve caught this farmer’s wife
In between the chicken coop and
The house; white hair combed back
With ruddy hands that pick eggs
Each morning, and when she talks
She mentions all of her family.
Without any warning,
No wind or dampness,
Just as I was about to
Step out from under
The empty stall,
After chain saw work
From my rubber boots
Then split the wood —
Sleet rained down all at once
As if someone whispered now
Caught even the chickadees
Feeding in the overgrown
Raspberry canes, but I
Watched as they regained
Themselves over the
Pasture, flying away
Clayton always had a pricky word
To say about the hippies.
They lived in a commune
Over the hill from his farm.
He ran into them at three places
At any one time during the year —
Either when he was hunting the hill
As he did every year for 40 years,
Or when he was running his snow-machine
On the back roads.
Finally he would see them in town
Every other Friday, when he was
Cashing his check from the state park.
And they was always cashing
Some other kind of check,
Smiling at him.
Of course I was a hippie to Clayton too
Because I had the long beard,
But we worked together when he came home
To his farm on the river.
Helped him screed the foundation floor
Under his house and lay down the roof, too —
Fix fence, cut the firewood and solder sap pails.
But one day I’ll never forget
Was when we were haying the lower mowing in August —
His wife had moved out long ago
And he was living with his son
And the big TV antenna.
But these summer days were spent
A long time haying,
Waiting on the weather
And broken down farm machines.
We had just finished up work,
Had the trailer swayed down loaded
With 200 bales and were coming around
The bend near the second swimming hole
When Clayton caught sight of something
Standing fresh out open
In the shallow part of the river —
A young woman soaping herself
And blonde naked as pine lumber,
Sunlight enshrined in the water
Around her knees.
We both stared like idiots
Until we got broadside with her,
Then we looked straight ahead
Business as usual
But I know she didn’t move.
Further up the road
Clayton twisted his sunburned neck
And skinny white t-shirt
Around in the tractor seat,
Looked back where I was
Holding onto the trailer stakes
And hollered, “I never did mind the hippie women!”
Apple, poplar, ash,
Cherry, red maple,
Pine, basswood, oak,
These are the woods
That we sawed today,
In two hours of thinning,
Selecting, we made a cord —
Trampled branches on snow
Worked without words.
Simple thoughts, like picking
Up these sticks — back and
Forth in the mind — until we
Stop to rest together against
The pile, brushing off woodchips,
Shedding hats and gloves,
And because we kiss, I warm
My hands beneath your blouse.
Just imagine Farlow
On Washington’s Birthday
When he came out the back door
Into his woodshed and caught
Clayton’s small hunting-pup
Digging through his trash.
According to the story
He told the game warden
Was that the pup attacked him,
So he had to shoot it.
Clayton never bought that story.
He knew from past experience
Of his own that Farlow’s wife
Had left him six months
After they moved here from Connecticut.
He was spending weekend nights
And now weekdays
In bars in town after work,
Might have even brought home a lady,
But most probably not.
Clayton could read Farlow’s house lights
A quarter-mile away from where
He sat nights in his kitchen —
No houses in-between.
If he used the scope of his rifle
He could even see more.
As winter sunk in
Farlow was keeping odd-hours —
Arriving home late,
Wandering around the house weekends,
And shooting his rifle off for hours
In his field on Sunday afternoons.
The house was said to have an arsenal —
Maybe 30 rifles and pistols for one man —
And it only took one to shoot the dog.
After that, Clayton didn’t deal with him,
Didn’t pay attention to his house lights,
And in turn Farlow leased out his hayfield
To someone else, instead of Clayton —
First time in years.
Since then both men have remarried,
Moved away, and the house of Farlow’s
Was bought by a millionaire gentleman farmer.
I still hear Farlow target practicing
In his field on a Sunday afternoon,
Even though he is long gone.
Clayton’s son says they have so many puppies
Around at his father’s old place
That they’ll probably have to drown a few of them
In the river this spring.
Here you are again
Late at night
Snow falling in the valley
Life on snowshoes
Hardly faraway from home
In fact, isn’t that the glow
Of the kitchen lamp
Lighting through the trees
I’ve spend the better part
Of darkness stamping in
A mile wide circle enjoying
The measure of going nowhere
Stand with me
Waste some time
Everything you’ve always wanted
Is all around you
© Bob Arnold
from Where Rivers Meet
(Mad River Press)
photos © bob arnold