Saddle Ridge

Two boys ride their bikes
from one corner to another across the north field.
The realtor had told us a local church owned the land.
It’ll never be built on, she promised.
And at least for now it hasn’t been: a vacant rag-and-bone lot,
God-made for weekend racing.

The boys are maybe ten…twelve?
They fly off the field too fast to compare.
Nothing in their lives will ever again be this uncomplicated —
the gentle slope of it, the trail rubbed to hardtack,
the blood oath company of boys,
and down the block, a pirate map of streets
with names like Campfire, Horse Soldier, Medicine Man.
Familiar home-ended streets.

Years from now, too many years to see,
when they’re a little worn themselves,
and divorced in one way or another from their deep contentment,
this will seem like saving,
a possible grace.
Mild October, the air whistling and racing,
and their sharp shouting rising
like seagulls on a sunlit sea.

Paint Pony

The little straw hair boy climbs on,
grabs an earful pink and blue,
pats her neckful clotted cream,
shiny even in the darkish,
shiny even in his dream.
No dad! (Come, we’re going home).
He knows it isn’t real a pony,
knows in ways the opposite of horse,
planted by the sand
on three-inch pipe and
only bobby, bobbing only,
idea of moving painted like a horse.

(Of course we must go to Gran’s —
hold while I put your shoes on.
Justin, hold!)
Him in bowl shape sweaters turned,
mittens tethered to his wrist,
but all he thinks,
and all his thinks of flying
painted like a horse.

Bees’ Nest

We found cool,
creeping in the pine and eucalyptus,
stealing through hidden spaces
when the weekdays dragged,
and summer staked a place
on every bleached
beach towel.

I remember following her foot
on fecund earth
like still-damp coffee grounds.
A welt of outstretched limbs,
the taste of shade and sweat
on our noses and our tongues,
and sun and devils in our faces.

Alison was California,
like the copses,
a vein sprung
from subterranean lines
that pushed up trees
and pushed out beaches
into their matrimonial air.

I remember winding by
the Spanish tower
in the bloom of geraniums
always dying.
I remember her smile
after school, a wink
and a disclaimer:
a mushroom invitation,
California sweet and scarlet.

The bees’ nest was a stump,
an old oak, rotted and sealed
and smelling of resin.
Friday morning, off from summer school,
we heaped mud and leaves
to stop the migration of the bees.

Then Alison with a stick
and the rich swarm
that burst from the wood like fluid,
while she cried and cried
and ran with her insect headdress,
pushing me away and crying “Help me!”

I put out my hand to help,
but she was too concerned
with punishment.

Boy with a Gun

We shared the sidewalk,
and he, too old for lemonade stands,
his head, so resolute it shook,
his fingers,
wrapped around the plastic gun,
his voice, too guttural
for ten years old,
shouted “Pow!”
and the arm recoiled
as I walked on past his house.

I wanted to say,
that isn’t the way it is at all.
You hear the footsteps first,
the voice is soft:
“Stop or you’re dead.”
The gun seems far too small,
winking in the streetlight.
The ring comes off too slowly,
and the boy is nervous
when he whispers
keep walking.

Dad Dying

He used to tell stories:
how my mother would visit him at Oxford
and cook three-course meals on a single burner
while they sported the oak,
which, he explained, meant they kept
the heavy wood door chained.

In the end, he drank so much
telephone calls didn’t reach him.
They fell through the wire,
and you shied from his thick, warm voice.
His great chest shrank at seventy:
the captain of the first XV,
the rugger boy who scored three tries
the day I was born.

In the hospital
nurses fluttered like sheets
along the hallways;
through the window, a garden party sky.
I thought of that wartime summer,
the one all Englishmen seem to remember
whether they were alive, or not yet born,
or dying in the air in Spitfires.

He was a kid then,
lugging books and his gas mask.
A part of that world was his —
the tea on the grass,
and the big beneficent clouds, promising
they would also be there
that day in Kelowna.

But he didn’t speak.
I made an awkward joke to his jaundiced head
about how I hadn’t expected to see him so soon,
and took my place.
His breathing filled the room.

When it stopped, his wife cried
and shouldered out,
ignoring my mothering arms.
I crept back in before they took his eyes,
kissed his yellow brow,
our skin briefly the same.

Cleaning Birdhouse

We are always children, really.
Every animal death is the death of love —
not dependent love,
not mom or dad, however deep,
but the first one we knew ourselves
separate and complete,
that made us separate and complete,
and so in an awful unexpected way
the death of us.

The schoolyard girl, the girl with the bangs,
the unborn twin, the boy down the block,
the collie at Christmas.
No one loved for us, none loved as we did.

The day after I put it up
house wrens built their nest
in the new birdbox,
ferrying sweetgrass and sprigs of sumac
through a hole in the neat shiplap.

It was a fine bright thing:
white pine and brass catches,
one wall and the roof hinged at the top
for cleaning out.

But at the end of summer,
cleaning it out, I stopped,
grabbed the shovel from the shed,
dug a foot-deep pit on the ridge,
above the cottonwood and the creek,
and buried the old nest there.

I drove to town in my middle age
with a well, a wound in my throat,
an organ of need, twig, and skin
wanting all of it again,
the gaping breath and the whole bone,
sure that I could not be,
after all, just a part of this.

That by now I must be hardened off,
complete as flight,
not running edgeless
into the rest of the world,

and not undone by the fledgling
left dead in the nest
his perfect unwrapped
new-brown feathers
a miniature of grief.