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From the highway I see the open, unmown fields, two silos the same
battered blue, the sign with its white letters still singing the name
ALFALFA FARM. And next door, the house of an old friend, long gone,
now redone and different from how I knew it: raw, dug-up lawn,
cracked storm door, a van in the driveway balanced on blocks where
his sisters would play under a pile of ratty afghans. We watched them
from an appliance box with a slot cut out for spying. Now there is
a birdbath, a potting shed where their mildewed dollhouse sagged.
The farm is unchanged. Barns upon barns, the same cows wearing
the same canvas hoods alongside the highway where the cars fly by.
We used to count them: cows and cars, out in the field for no other reason
than to stay out of his house where Christmas lights, cheap cordials,
Easter grass lay around for no discernable holiday, the same warped box
of a chocolate sampler spoiling on the counter. For the flies, I thought.
The flies that clung to the eyes of beasts in the barn, ate their fill
from around the lids, flew up in a frenzy when we ran through the kitchen.
The same flies, calves, and shabby stallions in the fields. I see them all
as I pass by on the highway. The falling sign, crooked like a sleeping head,
the rusted tractor punctured by reeds in the swamp. This new house
has a gazebo in the yard where we stood on the stone wall, watched
men slaughter the black bulls they’d linked to a concrete slab by the rings
in their snouts. The air was sharp with blood and howls and struggle,
the men took running starts, gouged the bulls with pikes, dragged them
down the hill where they bled a dark blot of blood on the pond.
This is not the same house—now it’s painted sky blue with white trim, crisp
as an unsliced cake beneath a plastic dome—not the same house I
barely remember leaving. My friend’s sisters wore their bathing suits
all day, his mother was locked in the bathroom with a stranger whose car
was parked on the lawn. The manure cooked, piled in its rank monument.
I was a child then. I believe that was a part of my childhood.
Is it agony that has bleached them to such beauty? Their stand
is at the edge of our property—white spires like fingers, through which
the deer emerge with all the tentative grace of memory. Your father
loved these trees. When you try to imagine his childhood, it is all old
footage, in a similar scheme: black and white. But he died, and all you know
is that they reminded him of home. As they remind you he is gone
to a country as unimaginable as his life before you were born, before
the woman who would be your mother lived as she does now—lost,
wandering at the edge of her life’s whitened gates.
After a storm, one birch fell in the field, an ivory buttress collapsed across
the pasture. Up close there is pink skin beneath the paper, green lichen
ascending in settlements of scales. In the dark yard it beckons you back
to snow, the static of the past—your father, a boy, speaking in a tongue
you never knew, calling down from the branches. Or the letter you wrote
to a mother you weren’t allowed to miss—black ink scrawled across
the white pulp of the page: I am very lonely without you.
from Why Speak
BIO: Nathaniel Bellows was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1972. His poetry has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and other journals, as well as in the anthology Poems of New York. He is the author of the novel On This Day and the poetry collection Why Speak? He lives in New York City.