I cracked open your ice-bound soul, stepping in.
Wading out, I minded only reeds and revisions,
the sterile passion of a polymer muse.
But I kicked up the sediment, and out wafted
Colorado’s state motto, stale nicotine, drunken muscle memory, spikes of broken strings, trembling hands, scrawls of hair, unmade sheets, unmade plans.
Panicking, I tore you out.
(Only some poets are heart surgeons.)
Watching the loose leaf migration fold up the summer sun,
scattering you to the four corners of town,
I hoped maybe you would understand
because you read.
But I’m a leather-bound
Because you don’t.
Broken spine, tattered skin,
Drowning in your own veins,
Walking the razor’s edge until you bleed blue,
Licking sugar from a twin blade, the sweet agony of this double-sided instrument,
no stranger to iron in the river system,
You write like an hourglass in zero gravity.
And writers need readers
like the wolf needs the deer.
But I know how all your stories end.
The carnivores turn on each other,
while the deer stands down in the water,
JULY, RECLINING NUDE, STUDY #7, 1994
When a baby was born in the village, the fishermen were quick to name a godfather. And for as long as anyone could remember, it was Oscar. He was every child’s godfather born over the last 50 years. Oscar was a silent man, with a weathered silence that comes from living and dying on the sea, a lifetime of fishing seasons— good and bad. He was a strong man, if not a little mysterious, some thought.
When a baby girl was born to the Aleut daughter-in-law and son of the old Swede, the family named Oscar as her godfather. The old Swede, big Ed, was a friend of Oscars’ in their early days. It was Ed who followed Oscar out in a storm to hunt for Oscars’ son. Oscars’ son, lost at sea. 40 years past.
Slipping two bottles of beer into his worn wool coast, big Ed painfully walked through town down to the water’s edge to find Oscar.
Oscar saw the old Swede come up over the steep cliff and smiled.
“I thought you could use a hand with those nets..."
And so they sat near the shore drinking bottles of beer and watching the waves break over the rocky beachhead, talking of nothing and understanding each other perfectly.
“That s.o.b. doctor was so drunk it took Emil and me both to drag him out of bed and hold him up in the cold shower. Couldn’t sober him up! -and what do you know, the baby didn’t want his help anyway! That’s the way it should be, Ed."
The old Swede was dying. But it seemed like a small thing as he sat with to a man whose son was gone. A son he could only talk to in his prayers. His body never washed ashore. Wordless— as only fisherman can be, they scanned the sea, and the sky wondering what lay in store for them tomorrow.
The sun was sinking under the horizon and the tides went out as they picked up the nets and walked home to their suppers.
It had been a poor fishing season, like the last and the one before that. But the morning dawned full and fair weathered. It was a dangerous time, the lull between summer and fall fishing. Hard gale winds blowing in from the Baltic and lightning across the Gulf of Alaska could curse a crew with certain death or bless their tug with a belly full of fish.
“You can almost smell winter in the air,” they would say to each other, chugging out into deep icy waters.
The little fleet formed a flotilla and headed out to test their luck. They did not fear drowning as much as they feared starvation.
“A little under the weather Oscar? This will pick you up!” Big Ed had brought his old friend a loaf of his wives’ sourdough bread and some rosehip tea.
“A little,” Oscar answered setting out a can of butter next to his friend.
Ed sat at the wooden table in the tiny kitchen filled with Wilma’s pots and cake pans. Oscar’s wife had died the Christmas his son was lost at sea. After that it seemed that Oscar lived on coffee and cigarettes, pilot bread, dried fish and an occasional bottle of beer.
Big Ed pulled a pocket knife from his jacket, and wiping the blade on his pant leg, cut two big pieces from the warm loaf. Oscar sat and stared out his window— down, down across the zig zaged rows of rickety ramshackle houses, down, past the rusty cannery— down to the rocky shoreline.
“The clouds are moving in,” Big Ed raised his head, looking at nothing in particular.
“I hear the winds…”
Big Ed and Oscar ate their bread and drank two cups of black coffee each. Oscar stood up. He looked at his old friend square in the face.
“Thank you Ed.”
Ed looked at the coffee grounds in his chipped cup.
“Tomorrow’s the baptism. Sunday. Noon. They are going to call her Wilma.”
Oscar smiled. When Ed looked up he was gone.
Midnight. The fleet had not returned and the fishermen’s wives began to gather at Zenia's— big Ed’s wife— house. There was coffee and Russian tea, a few cans of salmon and salt bread put out to eat. By one o’clock the fleet had still not returned, the same by three, then four.
The hurricane-force gale winds had flattened the few trees surrounding the little fishing village, scattering them like broken dolls. Then the fog rolled in thick and sharp, like the breath of a monster from the bottom of the sea. More than once the fishermen’s wives heard their husbands swear they had seen the creatures.
The women spoke quietly, if at all. Some knit while others absent mindedly played cards or cradled crying babies.
“I’m going down to the dock and the signal house.”
The women looked on expectantly as big Ed buttoned up his jacket and pulled on his hat and heavy rubber boots.
“Come help me get out the door,” When Big Ed opened the door, the women formed a barricade behind it.
“Hold steady!” big Ed hollered, stepping out into the black howling winds. The strength of the gusts took the old Swede by surprise— like a hard hit to the head. Big Ed’s fisherman boots were no match for the rain-turned-ice on the broken boardwalk that snaked down to the little harbor. Tripping over a wobbly railing, he slid halfway to the shoreline, landing face down on a rocky sand bar.
“The wind’s not the worst of it,” Ed thought as he tried to move his leg.
One by one the fishermen’s little tugs were hauled in. One by one they reached home and the arms of their wives and children— who were praying and waiting for their return. All were now safe and sung, all but one, that is.
“It was Oscar who found us, after he towed the last boat in we lost sight of him. That’s when we found Big Ed.”
Big Ed had come to the next day, in bed with a set leg.
“The baptism is noon Sunday,” were his only words.
The fishermen and their wives and children gathered in the tiny hand hued church erected on the little bench above the village for the baptism. They had no priest; they honored what mattered to them by gathering together and sharing a few good words. Weddings. Baptisms. Burials. Fisherman lived by simple luck, what others called faith.
Leaning on one crutch, Big Ed limped his way up to the front of the room. He scooped up the baby, and buttoning her up in his old wool coat.
“I told Oscar, the baptism was noon Sunday.”
Big Ed made his way out of the church down the boardwalk to the docks, followed by the rest of the village. Stopping at the shores edge he stood and watched the tide come in. Raising the baby up in his arms towards the sky, he turned to the little crowd.
“Wilma, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” then gently dipping her in the waves of sea foam, he turned back towards the sea.
“Here is your Goddaughter, Oscar: Wilma.”
The fisherman and the families were making their way back home when a boy who was lagging behind came running, shouting and waving a broken piece of wood— washed up and ripped from Oscar’s tug by the storm— on it painted in big black letters The Godfather. And the only sound was the sound of the waves crashing to shore and a few shrill cries of gulls, as everyone bowed their heads.
A Note Travels
“Ma cherie, feed me. Feed me, and I’ll tell you that you’re pretty.”
“More, more, there’s never enough!”
While she was dressing, I told Mlle Amélie about the sale at Mimi’s Closet—the chic new boutique located down the street. “Hurry, Mademoiselle! You’d really look awesome in those skinny jeans; you could always top ‘em off with that soft chiffon top. Ah superbe!”
Just yesterday, I saw Mademoiselle drooling over the Mimi’s ad in the Sunday newspaper. Mlle Amélie shook her head and said, “I’d love to go shopping, but I can’t afford any more new clothes right now.”
Seriously? Hasn’t she heard of layaway? Mimi’s offers layaway; it’s an absolutely amazing service and a great way to get the clothes Mademoiselle wants right now.
“I’m hungry, Mademoiselle. Let’s eat in tonight and order online. It’ll be just you and me, ma cherie.” Like she heard me.
Putting together outfits is so much fun. Darling, you look simply ravishing in that tailored suit. It’d look perfect with that Chantilly lace blouse.
One day while Mlle Amélie was primping in front of her mirror, her dress swayed back and forth out of control. Oh my! That’s a fashion faux pas.
“Oh, what’s that you asked? Would a belt tame that dress? Sure! You could sooo wear a belt with it. What about that cute item you saw at the Fashion Barn?”
“No, mon ami,” she drawled with her French accent. “That is too expensive.”
“Expensive? No! Everything’s affordable. Remember, Mademoiselle’s got that shiny new Visa card with a $2,000 limit.”
Gosh. I’m bored, really bored. And, can you believe it? Humans call this 12 x14 room a closet—just who are they kidding! I’m suffocating in here! I want to get out and have a little fun. Surely we could meet her friends at the outlet mall and shop all day. Yes, I’m full, but I can always eat more!
Speaking of eating….I see Mademoiselle has put on a little weight. This morning I heard her talking about a diet. What? A diet? Silly woman! All she needs is just a few new loose-fitting tops. She should check out the sale at Macys.
Yikes! Now she’s filled her hubby’s side. He doesn’t look happy with us. Well, we have seven days to get me organized.
Unbelievable! Her sweetly-scented, seductive dress claimed that Mlle Amélie is overwhelmed because she can’t ever find what she’s looking for in here.
“Overwhelmed? Balderdash! Has she no guts? No glory? Hasn’t Mademoiselle heard of the closet solutions at the Container Store?”
Mademoiselle! You heard me! These closet rod organizers are just perfect. And those huggable hangers are to die for! Ah, what a relief. I can breathe again!
“Oh, don’t wear that dress! You look frumpy in it.” Mlle Amélie cocked her head and looked at another outfit. “Nope. Not that one either. That style is sooo yesterday. I have a solution—just put it on a hanger here in the back. See. That’s easy enough.”
Mademoiselle wants to go out tonight. “What about that crepe outfit, mon ami?” she asked.
“What’s that you said, ma cherie? You love it? Yes, I understand. And I remember how excited and giddy you were when you first wore it. But, it’s just too snug now.”
With that, the French princess threw herself down on her bed. “I’m offended. You really hurt my feelings.”
“I know this is gonna sound harsh, but it’s just an old dress, right? Keep the memories, not the clothes.”
“But how, monsieur?”
“How? Surely you’ve heard of the resale shop in town. The woman who owns that shop will give you cash for your gently-used and slightly out-of-style clothes.”
“Well, that didn’t last long. Now I’m hungry again. Feed me.
“Great choice, Mademoiselle. I love that little number; it kisses the tips of your shoulders. Oooh, la, la. Plus the metallic embellishments tell me that you’re unique, and I’ll be the talk of the town for sure!”
Shoes? Don’t forget the shoes. I loved ‘em all: 60s pumps, go-go boots, and platforms from the 70s. And those 80s sneakers were totally rad. Remember? Mademoiselle was stunning in those stilettos.
Can you believe what those ungrateful, two-faced dresses said to me this morning? They had the nerve to tell me that I was obsessive. Who me? Obsessive? Absolutely not! I just need variety in my life.
“Hey, look out the window, Mademoiselle! Your neighbor’s having a garage sale. I’ve seen her; she’s got terrific taste. I bet Mademoiselle can pick up some items real cheap.”
Qui darling! I think you could totally refashion that maxi-skirt into a dress. ‘How creative’!”
Ahem! Ahem! I’m choking. It’s stuffy in here. Too many clothes? Nonsense! Me compulsive? Addictive? Surely you jest? Clothes are just the way I define myself.
“Mlle Amélie, why did you stop feeding me? You’ve gotta know that I’m hungry. You know you need me, ma cherie. No. I don’t think you have issues. Don’t you want to go to the mall? Open the door. It’ll be like old times. We’ll both feel better. Promise!”
OMG! No! Mademoiselle has turned off the light AND shut the door. Now she’s ignoring me. I fear something’s come between us. What is it? Mlle Amélie knows I can’t stand the silent treatment. Tell her, please, not to leave me alone in the darkness.
“Where are you, Mlle Amélie? I know you can hear me. You’re scaring me! You must help me! I’m all alone in here. Help! Help! Where are you? Tell me you’re not ending our relationship? Please! Please! Mademoiselle, open the door! Where are you? I’ll stop talking! Promise.”
M.J. Cleghorn, of Athabaskan and Eyak heritage, lives and writes near the banks of the Matanuska river in the Palmer Butte, Alaska, where the moose, wild dog~ roses and salmonberries provide unending joy and inspiration.