21. February: The Red and White

Stung by a chill wind,
They turned their collars.
Flapping shirts were scraping,
Scratching them:
This they never noticed
When they worked.
“Been one dry year.”
Someone had to say,
Each time they met.
Made them feel
At-home, and cut the rub–
Third dust storm this week.
Strewn about the board walk,
Leaning, crouching,
Men were broadly streaked
With tractor grease,
Windmill oil, plain dirt–
But not Bud, whose wife
Had kept his shirts
Always at white-hot glare
Since he’d been banker.

She’ll start to blow.”
Old Mr. Miller. Listening,
They did not want to hear.
Not how he said it–
Like, the dam will bust.
“Sure she’ll blow,” said one,
Always blows.”
“Not what I mean,” he said.
“I mean”–he paused–
“She will blow.”
They sat silent, picking
At their hands.
“How’s that, Mr. Miller?”

The man’s face,
A web of meshed-in lines.
Eye’s pale blue
Looked shattered, mirror-like.
He’d been gassed, they said,
In the World War.
He talked as if
None of them were there.
“On the farm,” he gestured,
“I was sitting in my chair.”
Mr. Miller paused, with heavy
Breath. Tom revolved his hat
Slow in his hands.

“Out there, I seen
Something by some weeds.”
Mr. Miller’s place was not
Kept up; he couldn’t tend.
“Something turning over.
Churning, like. You recall
How our guts churned, bad place–
Not Argonne–
The potted meat was bad,
The Government. The bloody flux.
I looked close.” He pointed off.
“It were a snake!
A water moc’sin.
Don’t ask me how come.”
They didn’t speak.

“Thrashing there, and
Churning. Jaw sprung open,
Rolling on itself, and rolling, like
Couldn’t stand the pain.”
Thomas held his hat.
“Then I see its belly
All swoll up–
Tumor there, I thought,
Great enough
To split its skin–
Scales was stretched, ripped,
Sundered one from one.
Then this growth–seem to move.”
The men looked at their feet,
The wind forgotten.
“Seem to burrow, up his body, so,
Upwards from his gut
Into his throat–gag
From within. And that
Moc’sin, start to keck and choke,
Seizing, why, so harsh,
Twisting hisself round,
Head jerked back
While tumor rose, that gorge.
In his mouth, I thought I saw
Eyes. That moc’sin
Vomited a bird. Bird
Whole, cramped, slime-soaked,
Eat up by juice,
Skin patched clear red–
Claws was eat away,
Down to the white.
Bird were still alive.
He were stiff a minute,
Stupified. Then skittered off,
On bones.” Mr. Miller
Breathed. “Hot summer coming.
But before then,
She is going to blow.”

The dust rose. They felt
Locked in a room.
All windows were painted
Shut, by him.
It was stifling.
Now they stirred to leave,
But murmured their respects.
“Good evening, sir.”
Story done,
The wind came up the same.
Mr. Miller, that old maid,
They thought–
“She will blow”–
Then they drifted off,
Began to smile,
Picturing their wives’ loud
Exclamations, when they heard
The story of the snake.

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