89. Riddles

“Pa had so much
Money he couldn’t count it.
Ma had such a big
Sheet she couldn’t
Fold it. I had
A ball and couldn’t
Bounce it.
James surveyed each
Face: they couldn’t
“Okay,” Pete said,
“Stars, the sky, the moon!
My riddle
Won!” yelled James.

They sat on
The dirt path, whittling
“So?” said Matthew,
Sour, “Mine is
Harder: how come
White sheep eat more grass
Than black?”
But they don’t, James thought.
“Answer is, because there’s
More of them!” Matt burst.

There stood Peter’s
Sister on the path,
In the distance,
Jump-rope on her arm.
“Time! Come home!”
Peter hunched down,
Whittling grimly:
She did not
Repeat. With one
Impatient gesture,
Hands to hips, she
Stood. And kept

The late sun pressed
Harder. Seemed it
Slowed the minutes,
All the locusts
Harping, her rope
Till they wished Pete
Gone. Still
He whittled.
Sweat curled on his
Cheek. His sister

To him, Peter,
They knew what would
Happen. They had
Seen it before.
He would soon be
Sent off to an aunt’s house,
Maybe with his brothers,
But his sister
Sent to Grandma’s house, or
Somewhere else….
He would see his
Mom and dad at
Christmas–so they’d
On the road they’d
Be, off scouting work–
Searching work and
Mailing dollars, notes.
When they left they’d
Tell him, “Grandma
Loves you.” Or
“Aunt Kay loves you.”
Grownups, when that
Look crept on their

James’ friends had turned
Cautious, shunning
Those homes where kin
Had moved in to live.
Benjy’s: moms and
Dads in every room, bumping
Kids aside, sleeping
On the floor, heaped
Blankets, and shrieks
Through the walls.
When a boy picked
Fights–when he would
Strike out, lunging
Like a bantam,
Hit when not
Provoked as Pete would
Do–it meant he’d
Soon be gone.
So they thought him
Better left alone.

“Sister wants you,” Matt said.
Peter whittled.
Meanwhile James was
Brooding: do they think
We’re dumb? Oh,
Not my folks–James
Shuddered–but those
Saying it’s all right. And
Not to worry.
James thought: yet–those
Were the lies he
Surely craved to hear.

In a last
Attempt to stay, Pete
Asked: “Do you know
How many feet a lamb has,
I mean, if you
Call a tail a foot?”
James knew:
“Four. Calling
Tail a foot don’t
Make it one.”

“Shoot!’ said Pete, and
Threw his penknife

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