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On the bad days the cataract moon,
the full hunter’s moon, splinters in the sky;
footstep pieces rain into the atmosphere.
I am swimming in the Great Lakes
among the decomposing bodies of pigs,
flip-flops, and plastic wallets.
Our neighbor has caught fire
walking to the mailbox
and flakes of his kindling skin
drift up the hill like paper.
The black pine off the deck aches
for the touch of finches and flickers —
its twin is already gone
heart broken, heart broken,
and the streambed of the intermittent stream
has given up trying to remember
the feel of water.
The tv plays its only scene:
the thin-boned dad rocking on the curb,
his eyes like socket wrenches, saying
we lost everything.
On the good days it is like
this late November snow / so still
you can hear across Well Gulch
the rustle of that unselfconscious thrush
regular as the earth contracting in the sun.
He has fallen asleep now,
tired in his abundance.
I wear my old wool hat to get the mail.
Melinda, the post girl, is still down the block,
trembling in her cappuccino-colored Jeep,
clapping her hands for blood,
and so I wait,
boots squeaking in the drift
below the cottonwood.
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I place the yellow warbler on the big rock
at the head of the path
where it hugs the hillside down into the gulch.
She had hit the south window,
and unlike the thrush last summer
which righted itself, sat up, and later flew off,
she had died.
Holding a wild bird,
warm as an oat cake in your hands,
ties you to the living wild,
but the odd sweet smell of death,
of these small deaths,
comes from somewhere else.
And so, obeying an ancient voice,
I place her on the big rock
knowing she will be gone in the morning —
like the bones of the wood rat
that lay on the path for weeks
until I put them on the rock.
even the sun will eat the earth in time,
but what does a rock eat
if not quiet, unmoving things?
Is it the coyotes and the cats
and the scavenger birds at night,
the interns and understudies of decay?
while we’re sleeping,
the great mass of the earth itself
tidying up, absorbing itself,
too old for teeth.
No more than a few steps from the bottom of the stair,
on my way down the hill to get the newspaper,
in the green shoots of ribbon grass where
climbing roses had begun to bud, I saw
a white plastic label with a pointed end —
the kind they put on potted plants to name,
give preferences for full or partial sun.
This advertised a pink geranium, long gone,
covered by growth, invisible in summer
in what drought-resistant brush grew
in the high plains of the Rockies.
I knew at once the woman who lived here
just before us placed it there.
I’d found other labels
clearing the border at the front of the house:
for pansies and yellow tea roses.
They’d all perished, of course,
and only plastic labels stayed,
stubborn for her hope,
enduring the two-foot snows,
the rabbits and the deer, the desiccating cold
that sapped the moisture
from my lemon thyme and sage — but these stayed,
stubborn for her hopeful hands.
When we closed, they drove up
and showed us round.
He took a clipping from the cactus
in the living room, while she sat in the car
(she smiled weakly in the realtor’s office,
made a joke as we signed the papers;
her oxygen tank discreetly sighed).
I looked out on her calm white head
gazing through the window of the Oldsmobile
where the sage and ribbon grass grew wild,
those two months before we heard she’d died.
Early spring, the house finches
and the big-bodied thrush sat in the black pine,
raided coconut fibers in the window boxes,
nesting long before the hummingbirds
and the wrens showed up.
We would see them above the ridge beam
on the peak of the cabin,
complaining to the morning sun.
I never saw them go in,
although the panels of the roof
were all that divided
attic and the open sky:
the thing was never built to code,
or else the builder loved the high plains enough
to make it easy traffic
for field mice, wood rats, or wasps.
The birds left when the roofers came.
Two days of crowbars and compressors,
hammer blows on plywood sheets,
the old panels, dimpled by hail, peeled away.
The new ones put down.
You never like a stranger
as much as when he builds your house
or makes it warm or weather-tight,
mistaking commerce for care.
Or perhaps it is a kind of care —
there are other jobs.
What do you think? the foreman asked.
Looks good, I said.
I hope there weren’t too many mice.
They pulled fifty from the crawl space
when they put the heaters in.
No mice, he said. We found birds’ nests,
five or six. The guys just tossed them down.
Some of them had eggs.
He looked sideways. Shrugged.
The birds never would have come back anyway.
When they’re disturbed, he said.
He was a local, a long-time foothills man.
We knew that magpies attacked songbirds’ nests,
that cowbirds were brood parasites —
that even the wrens turn out
the hatchlings of other wrens.
But when we walked up the hill
to admire the job
from the neighbor’s wall,
the house gleamed like new coin
in the prairie grass and scrub,
as though it had never loved the land at all.
In the day, so early even
that the red rock
had not yet caught fire,
still tindered politely
in the jaws of the sun,
a man runs in the bike lane,
slow and measured like a pro.
I’ve seen him from behind
the last three days,
my underpowered car
doing thirty-five up the hill.
Here, even fit cyclists
struggle on the dams,
seven miles of steep foothills
along a gaunt reservoir
below the Rocky Mountains.
He wears an ugly woolen cap
and baggy pants.
I wonder what brings him
is it the smell of sage
in the morning wet?
The huge expanse of plains
mapped out below?
The greening of the grass?
The earth awake?
But he never moves his head
for the view.
His view is other things.
I’ve seen the same labored gaze
in the mule deer on the drive,
raising their great cupped ears
to the sound of the car,
and then back to graze.
It’s what they do.
At night the runners and the deer
have stepped away
and the car’s high beams scan the road.
I’ve had a little wine.
Not enough to blow over the limit
but enough to know,
on the edges of the rural road,
are all the hunted, hurt, and haunted
specters of the world.
When I am right in what I do
I sometimes see a red fox in the open space,
along the top of the ravine
where Mail Creek
works its five-hundred-year-old course
through flood-ravaged shortgrass plain.
She greets me full-faced,
neutral, brave, and unimpressed.
It doesn’t matter that I’m there.
Whatever threat I represent
she has places to go:
remembered ribbons of trail,
dry thickets on the riverbank,
I will never see.
a pair of kits among
the fur and bones of old hunts.
She has places to go.
On a more timid day
she might recognize around
the orbits of my eyes
the look of prey:
the shallow breath,
and all my purpose hushed —
but this morning we have come out bold.
She passes on,
just another hunter in the brush.