106. Digging Fences

Mustn’t let her
Guess his hunger, no.
Careful with his
Voice, James coolly asked:
“Mama, can’t we
Try the garden once more,
One more time?
Put a few rows
Out. There could be
Some type plant that don’t need
Water.”

Riah heard it.
Well then, he must
Have the slice that
She had brought
Today, her slice
As well as his.
How long could she
Dig, though, with no food?
Have to go home
Early. “James,
There ain’t nothing
Green grows without rain.”

They dug, scraping
Sand: the fenceposts, drowning
Deeper in dust,
Floundered. What’s
The use?
They’d reached that
Conclusion weeks ago:
Let it slide.
But when boundary
Lines had disappeared,
They decided
Fenceposts, even marking
Nothing, must be
Saved.

Tom worked upfield.
Riah watched
Admiring: so good
With his hands!
Thomas he could
Hit a working rhythm,
Shovel seeming
Part of his right arm,
Then slip straight and
Clean right down a row.
Her mind straying,
Riah struck a post.
Sometimes, nights,
Lying there beside him,
She’d look at his
Fingers,  long and
Bony, silent
On the sheet–
There, so there, they
Almost spoke to her.

They’d moved
Far afield.
The three could no
Longer see the road.
James peered, anxious.
“Road’s to west”:
Riah, pointing left.
James, relieved,
Pulled his work gloves snug.

Nothing grew but
Grass–that, mostly
Ragged patches. Dead.
Some was eaten,
Riah had heard tell.
Grass stew, soup.
She sickened, but
Wondered: is it
Filling? How long
Boiling? She might
Need to know.
No aid could be
Scoffed at, thrown away.
She gave it all
Heed, tense as a hare.

Thinking back,
She recalled those
Tenant women’s faces,
Tight and clenched as
Fists, in stores in town,
Squabbling over
Pennies and half-ounces,
So unpleasant.
Once she’d thought:
Why’d they act that
Tight way, anyhow?
Now she thought: I’m
Dumb.

“Nice it’s summer,”
She said–James seemed pale–
“Dusters gone.”
James was nodding,
Scanning the horizon, sweat-soaked
Hair. Sudden
Thought: “Hey, Mama–
How come firemen
To wear red suspenders?”
This a new one
On him, told by
Matt. James’ eyes
Danced. Riah
Tried appearing
Puzzled: “Red ones…
Tell me, why?”
“Hold their
Pants up!” And they
Laughed and laughed:
Riah loved to
Work with James along.

Here came Thomas–
“Break!” She watched  him
Give one glance down
At the boy, then say:
“Tell you what.
I’m not very
Hungry–I’m too hot.
Take my sandwich
For me, will you, James?” Riah
Shook her head.
Gave the signal
That said: give him
Half of yours, I’ll
Give him half of mine.

Fenceposts curved off
In a ragged line.

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