Two weary copperheads twined and writhing behind the woodpile where I came for kindling twist and slither, crackling the dead leaves in unseasonable mating, their eyed arrowheads
oblivious to my trespass, and unlike Tiresias, I am untempted to strike them or otherwise interrupt their puzzle of rust and rubbed umber, for in this chill at evening I think nothing
bent on survival could be close to obscene, even if they were twins of the same hatch back in wet summer, even if their venom sacs are swollen and they can see any human
intruder only with spite. Struck still as a wren in a trance by the crucial beauty of it, I pause till a last spasm shakes them loose. The dying grass under trees the pine beetles have ruined
conceals their separate exits, and only now, feeling autumn’s bite on my bare cheeks, do I begin to envy their bliss and gather sticks and stacked sapwood for the year’s first fire.
Inside then, dropping my hickory and poplar into the hearthside box, I surprise my wife from behind and wrap my arms like two snakes around her waist, till I feel her spine stiffen
with pleasure at the kiss on her nape, my lick and nuzzle, the sheer animal comfort we crave, for are we not also fallen creatures cursed with labor and eager in this season to be saved?
I’m so tired of telling you about the birds, and you’ve heard it all to no profit and little amusement—the hawks calling as they fall on moles, the puling doves, cardinals wary of their shadows on snow and so on—but indulge me these last words, a testimony as white tufts from the sky send them to a frenzy, and even wrens grow possessive and feisty, every seed a treasure. On the dead and needleless snag cedar a crow presides, all glossy frock coat and vowels, scolding juncos, chickadees, anybody small enough to take a feeder perch. He knows winter’s a time to be quick and minimal, an ember in the great flame which is cold for the minute but will consume us all in the End Times (which my neighbor says is around the corner). Now I’ve gone and ambled off again when all I meant to say was tighten down like the sparrow and let the ice slide by, whinny out like a screech owl, carve the air as swifts do to the shape of thoughts you can sleep with. And listen to the old man at the window who’s sworn the thrush, nuthatch and warbler will no longer occupy his voice or your leisure, though he’s taking his sweet time about it, dependent on his yammering as the blaze-headed pileated who’s now hammering his hungry percussion into the dead hickory whose hollows are half filled with owls and snow and who might know as much about the End Time as any sour local promising a scourging and the purifying power of Divine Light which has always been part of the story and coming for all of us incapable of irony and the dazzling happenstance of flight.
Fairydiddles my neighbor names them, the way he calls the checkerback pecking the cedar shakes son-of-a-bitch bird and the fledgling turkey goony jake,
but the trespassers crawling wallspace along joists, licking sheetrock and fascia, are squirrels with the faces of elves. John swears they can destroy a house.
Nocturnal, airborne and restless, they grin in my dreams and scrabble before dawn, their routine gibberish shrill the instant I cross the threshold
of sleep. They lark about and nest, breed like poor relations and show no fear. If I catch one lingering on the sill or hickory limb brushing the eave,
it will eye me till I slap the pane and he spreads his fleshy web like sails to sweep into night where owls and other hungers wait. If such tenants
are essential to country life—sinister and indigenous but cunning enough to admire—I’d be wiser to cease picturing what needle teeth will do
to a live wire and submit to my fate, to coexist in peace and accept the ways we’re kin but always ready to rise in flame and ruin when elf
mischief finds the current. After all, a moment with angel-radiant squirrels might supply the bliss I’m missing, turn me nearly graceful as the glory
of their brief soaring. If this invasion ends in a wildlife incident and John, looking back with his wistful diction, conjures a moniker to befit his late
neighbor and sometime host, who can guess what he’ll devise? Maybe frisky risker, nitwit of smolder or owl-cohort. Drowsy as I am now, bone-weary
and riled by the evening’s serenade, I won’t ask the idiom for mercy. What about ashtongue, old smoky or just the rodent-whisperer’s ghost?
R. T. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he has edited Shenandoah since 1995. Smith is a two-time winner of the Library of Virginia Poetry Book of the Year Award and recipient of the Virginia Governor’s Award for Achievement in the Arts. His newest book is Sherburne: Stories from Stephen F. Austin University Press.