If a heron stood sentinel on the banks of that pond where bluegill bit whatever we hooked to the end of a line and a curly-q of smoke resembled a last illiterate scribble, sloppy signature that tried to say this is my name, this is who I am
in a wide sky over hills and fields we wandered as children, then cruelty was the word we learned early, long slow syllable at the center like dark clouds in the west, quick T at the end like the sudden swing of an aluminum door slapping the siding of a dented trailer,
sly Y turned E like the missing catch that’s supposed to keep the door in check, storm glass soon to shatter. And if later, we laughed and threw booze bottles that we found in a homeless man’s camp among a grove of trees and if we dumped his water, burnt soiled clothes,
and scattered his bedding, then we were just acting as we’d been taught. Or so I would like to say. The willows swayed and made no case against us. The thorns of locust trees stayed sharp. Maybe the heron launched into a sky that held birds and smoke in the same blue palm. The planks
he’d used for a bed cracked in the fire pit. Greasy blankets in the blaze put forth a dark smell. We were boys trying to find the easiest way to masculine violence,deep class issues, and let’s brutalize someone worse off than us. It’s forty years later, and now it seems like the word we learned was America,
four syllables owned by only a few. Of course, I never saw the man’s face when he came back to ruin, his things scattered, because we did not watch: we ran and swam and cannonballed off a rope swing for a few hours and then half-carried, half-dragged the dozens of fish back to the trailer park
where we gutted them on porches, hosing everything off before our fathers saw the mess, believing that the sweet meat of those spiny-backs would be fried with butter for dinner, the brilliant blue and bright orange behind the gills like the beginnings of a rainbow, oblivious to how our mothers would throw it all
away, the flesh rancid, a lesson in language that takes more than forty years to unlearn: if you keep them too long on a stringer, metal clips through soft skin under the jaw, they go dry and stiff, eyes grey and black as if they’d never been alive, and then they are useless, but you can do anything to them.
Tod Marshall’s most recent poetry collection is Bugle(Canarium Books), winner of the 2015 Washington State Book Award. From 2016 to 2018 he served as the Washington State Poet Laureate. He teaches at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
Header photo by Michael Schober, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Tod Marshall by Amy Sinisterra.