We counted waves by sevens not knowing which was “one”
Otters by tails, kelp by fistfuls. We counted steps toward the lighthouse. We counted grains of salt, letters signed “love” or not. We counted on my cold hands in his hot. We counted on ocean, ocean, ocean, ignoring that you can’t count on a coastline to keep. I counted his thrusts; I tallied times cried. I had not one thing better to do on the edge of this continent than track where the water definitively thins, where thrum ceases to have a shape recognizable as romantic murmur. It counted, I try to tell myself, this relationship I knew I couldn’t commit to. He thought I was the one. And seven? The days of the weeks shoring us up: Today it’s not perfect, and it’s not over.
The Schoolteacher awaiting her pupils
Little Greenbrier School, Tennessee, 1910
Such balance of a building by either side of center hewn, the walls not so much poplar as lessons in weight or religion—how we stay standing. Me, I’m grateful for glass and sash replaced, my view into the winterscape widening. I sweep the pine planks, feed the stove so that students can see smoke. Miles distant, they are doghobbling toward my world, one hand on a basket, the other in a pocket palming a warm sweet potato. If it weren’t raining I’d be rubbing lard on my iron spade— Praise tools and use! I’m no preacher like the teachers before me; I’m not latched by staple and hasp. It’s enough to board with a family and keep the community’s pith worked. Children, we’ll do the arithmetic: how many of mothers’ hoecakes fed the fathers who raised this building? Not quite a year from dry stone piers to rived oak roof, I watched your daddies hoist. What girth, greenbrier; what grip, wild grape. If the swoon fits, the sweat is so everywhere. Then savor the low stretches of the Little River where it stinks. Savor the hard apples; Savor cove: say it. Send your horses that way to retrieve a Bible-sized surface of slate for me to erase. Like the spiders that spin in these chinks, we’ll practice the re-do every day of faith. I’m no saint: I make the students recite and repeat, that they should know any one of God’s words by its half, as in tōō׳lip. The heartwood of church and state, I’m schooled: Tulip poplar logs were chosen so they could be split. Do we not construct our futures meticulously in the flesh? Pray tell. In spring, the children will leave one afternoon for months of farm chores, and I’ll tend to my own plot where a Fraser magnolia will bear, some twenty years hence, seeds as red as choose your sin. Don’t hurry, dear pupils, don’t rest— your first and eternal test in how to evenly hew.
Amy A. Whitcomb is an artist and writing instructor based in northern California. Her poetry and prose have appeared in The Pinch, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, and Permafrost, among other publications. In August 2017, Amy was honored as the artist-in-residence in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where these two poems were drafted.
Header photo by Ethan Daniels, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Amy A. Whitcomb by Karin Higgins.