Slaughter when the signs are in the knees, while the breath is visible, when whiteness makes the invisible obvious and death takes food for its meaning.
Butcher when the broken moon holds a star in her teeth, when wind is reawakened out of a sleeping breeze, while the blood thickens.
Bleed the kill to keep open its hollows. Pay no mind to emotion. It serves no one to starve in a way that disrespects the maw of the world.
If, as its eyes turn to smoke, the color failing, filling the bowl, you feel some remorse, remember the certainties.
Draw the edge across your tongue; allow the bud to taste itself.
# # #
Short story: BLACK POLACKS
I see them coming from half a mile away. They are four shadows, walking slowly, swinging round tin lunch buckets and lifting their black legs in rhythm like they’re marching. They are sooty from hats to boots. Their clothes are as dark as the night, rising over the horizon, while the summer sun dies behind the hill. When they get close enough to make out which one is which, I can see Dziadek is leading, Uncle Baltasi walking with him. Behind them Uncle Wojciech and Andrzej follow and talk to each other,. Dziadek sings a song they seem to be marching to. When they reach the yard, I run out to greet them. They laugh when they see me; their white teeth and pink mouths flashing from the blackness of their faces, and their eyes crinkling in inky lines at the corners. I want them to pick me up and through me back and forth like they do sometimes on Sunday afternoons, but they won’t. I would only; get blackened by the dust on their hands and clothes. They all have a beer, then one at a time drift into the cellar to clean up. While he’s waiting his turn, Andrzej sings me, “Sixteen Tons.” Baltasi comes out and Wojciech goes in. Dziadek says he worked that way before John L. Lewis. He says it was a 14-hour day, for pennies a ton and he was always in debt to the company store. They all have pictures of John L. Lewis. They are sort of like holy pictures the way they look at them, a scowling face with big dark eyes and eyebrows thick as brooms. Wojciech comes out and Dziadek goes in. Baltasi and Wojciech look like new again, except for a little black behind Baltaski’s big red ears and a lot of it in Wojciech’s nose. He pulls out his handkerchief and blows and blows. “Why do you work in the mine?” I ask. “Daddy says he would never work underground.” “Polacks always work in mines. That’s the way it is,” Baltasi says. “If not coal mines, salt mines, if not salt, flint mines, always underground.” “In Wielicza,” Wojciech says, “I used to work in the salt mine that was there since before Christ. The men have carved a cathedral in the caves, so they can work on Sunday and not miss Mass. The ceiling above the sale chandeliers is black from the smoke of hundreds of year’s worth of candles. These Is a salt Madonna, is it Lot’s wife?” “You worked there, I didn’t” “I was only nine. I remember they had blind horses that had never seen the light. Kept them hobbled in the halls while Mass was said. And once, we found a caveman, preserved in salt.” “Poles have always worked coal fields,” Baltasi says. “In Silesia, in Dabrowa, in Sasnowiech and Bedzin, men have gone under the ground ever since anyone can remember.” “Don’t you remember, I told you the story of how Krakus,” Andrzej says, “the youngest brother, slayed the dragon in the caves of Wawel Hill>” “We belong under the ground,” Wojciech says, “This is our workplace. Mother Earth is not such a bad place to work.” “We end up in her arms anyway,” Dziadek says, walking into the conversation, drying his hair with a white towel. “It is too close for me,” Andrzej says, getting up. “Too had to breathe in all the dust, and the water is so damn cold. I don’t like bending over all day, or crawling in the mud.” “You get used to it,” Baltasi says. “It used to be much worse,” Wojciech adds. “I’ll never get used to cave-ins. I know too many dead men. And I have not felt clean since the day I went to work. The dirt is inside me now. You can’t scrub it off.” “You learn to live with these things,” Dziadek says. “What other choice is there? A place belongs to those who live there, the ones that work and eat and go to the toilet there. The underground belongs to the Poles, the dirt belongs to the Polacks.” “And to the dead,” Wojciech says. “Amen,” says Andrzej as he goes in. Baltasi picks me up and throws me to Dziadek. I am afraid for a moment, when Dziadek tosses me to Wojciech. I flap my arms and fall, but hands catch me and throw me again. I fly back and forth, while fireflies rise from the dark hedges.
The Minnesota Review
Poem: The Hilarious Beating
He said he was going to make this the worst beating I had ever had, while pulling the split strop out From its hiding place on the top shelf of the Linen closet. Then, with its tails dangling Before my eyes, he led me down the steps by the hair.
I was on the floor looking up at a giant. Parallel aluminum clotheslines shone above his Head and behind, the halo of a bare light bulb.
He brought the leather down with everything he had. The blow lifted me up from the floor and I screamed, Jesus, Daddy. Please stop. You’re killing me.” He stopped and dropped his whip. He had said It was going to hurt him more than it would hurt Me. I got up feeling sorry for him.
His hands covered his face and muffled his Breathing. I put my hand on his shaking shoulder. I said. “It’s all right. It hurt, but I’m all right.”
He turned away quickly and I followed him to the Bottom of the basement stairs. I touched him and said, Don’t cry.” He could hold it in no longer and Broke out in the loudest laugh I have ever heard. He told the story every time the family got together.
Published: The Paris Review
Essay: A FIGURE IN A MOONSCAPE
I was born overlooking the Ohio River and raised around Harrison and Jefferson Counties, on Foxes’ Bottom Road, about eight miles outside of a small town. Most evenings, you might hear one car roll down the road all night long. Our house was in high hills like those that trail for twenty miles or so on either side of the river. James Wright was from Martins ferry and Bill Mazeroski from Tiltonsville, but everyone in the Ohio Valley, all along the right side and bottom of the state, knew what they came from, a steel mill and coal mine culture that plundered the land and employed the average Joe whose kids left as soon as they could go. I played football, first for ST. Casimir’s in Adena, Ohio, then for Adena High School, which had a short-lived glory as the Golden Wave, before being absorbed with all its life-long rivals into Buckeye Local Consolidated High School. When I drive home through the hills of Harrison County, I see what progress has wrought on the landscape of my youth. Many of the mines are mined out. Much of what goes on is coal processing and delivery. The shining tracks of coal trains and backwoods pipelines pumping a slurry of crushed coal to Ohio utilities crisscross the land like ivy vines. Now the lakes and reclaimed streams are tourist attractions. In my childhood, reclamation was not a consideration. I can still take you to places that are like a moonscape, surreal in their desolation. Then, this land was less populated, and signs of man were fewer and further between. It was not uncommon for me to walk for an hour in these hills and not see another house. When I was in high school, I often took my .22, a book, a sandwich and canteen and disappeared into the wilds for the whole day. The land would go from pasture to strip pit to hardwood forest, to the mountains of the moon, and the closest thing I’d come to seeing another human being was an empty Iron City bottle or the dark red and brass artifact of an empty shotgun shell. But mine was a forest for the trees mindset, the most obvious sign of human beings being omnipresent gaping wounds in the earth, the strip pits themselves. Strip mines are signs of human activity, but more absences than presences, miniature Grand Canyons where the “overburden” has been lifted up (Hallelujah!) from the valuable bituminous beneath, and left a certain nothingness. Usually, after a decade or two, a pit fills with a blue green water that brings birds and field mice and woodchucks. I spent the better part of six summers slaughtering woodchucks around the landscape of surface mines. Some places I knew not to go. My cousin Mike drowned in the quicksand of a spoil bank. One guy knew was attacked by a pack of wild dogs and fought them off with his .22. I felt safe with my weapon, or at least, safer. Being young and armed, I imagined myself an Indian, an explorer, a soldier, a scout. I climbed the hills and slipped silently down into the valleys. If I saw humans, they did not see me. I left no sign and took no liberties with myself. Since I didn’t shoot his cattle or harass his other stock, Mr. Dombrowski encouraged me to hunt “chucks” or ground hogs. They were hard on his farm equipment, destructive to his crops, and created holes his animals broke legs in. I saw them as rodents and like mosquitoes, not really one of God’s better ideas. Of course, the ground hog was just an excuse to have a gun. Mine was a Remington Nylon Sixty-Six, a soft of survival rifle, made with a green polyethylene stock with parts of nylon and steel. A semi-automatic, it weighed a little over three pounds, even with an eight-power scope, and held fifteen long rifle, hollow point cartridges in its magazine. It made me feel like I could hide out in the hills and hold off wild dogs or Russians all by myself. I wasn’t crazy or careless, though. We had a neighbor with an automatic Mauser who would shoot at anything that moved, including trees that swayed a little too much for him. He had a tree behind his house, a full foot in diameter that he had blasted in half over a week’s time. I pride myself on being a careful hunter and a safety-conscious person. I had the discipline of fantasy and often stalked a groundhog for hours, watching a group feed and sun itself before waddling down to the water a few at a time to drink. I would wait and read my book. One summer it was science fiction, another it was The Brothers Karamazov and Wurthering Heights. I read every book in our small town public library. War and Peace come the summer of my senior year, most of its incredible pageantry played out in the barren spoil banks. Between chapters, while Pierre and Natasha were moved about like miniatures in a giant diorama, I rid the world of what I thought were vermin in massive panoramas of my own. To make it easier, I gave the ones I killed names like Stalin, Molotov, Beria. The ones that got away I called Tolstoy or Pushkin. When they were relaxed and unsuspecting, when the fattest, oldest male, Old Joe, himself, his harem having assured him the coast was clear, sauntered down to the green water pooled in the old strip pit to sip, I would line up the cross hairs in my scope, and carefully holding my breath in anticipation, squeeze off my first shot. After that, I didn’t waste time watching him fall, but slipped into a fervid, almost maniacal frenzy of rapid fire aiming and shooting. Focusing fast on the rodents closest to the hole, I eased off shot after shot before they could scramble madly back into the earth. I had spotted them all, and had watched where their alternative entrances were. I ran off all fifteen shots, then fell silent and reloaded. I would repeat this process a time or two in the space of an afternoon, at different places in the wildest part of the hills. I once single-handedly wiped out at colony in a summer of steady visits. They had set up in a particularly barren area that resembled a lunar landscape. Not a tree stood beyond the escarpment of the spoil bank. Not a bush sprouted, not even very many weeds. In the distance, a road wound though the rubble up a hill to a graveyard with a few big old oaks. This place had not sold its mineral rights and stood like the core of an eaten apple on an empty table. Except for this island, it looked as if a bomb had hit and blasted away all the vegetation down to the dirt. From my hide behind a few rocks, I could watch the groundhogs, and hidden in the shadows of a place where the coal company had not touched, separate myself and my world from those rat-like lives. Ending one of those lives seemed easy for me then. Other than woodchucks, I wasn’t much of a hunter. My brother hunted squirrel, rabbit and even deer, but I could never get too involved in killing anything even remotely cute. The closest I ever came was a raccoon that was raiding our chicken coop when I lived on a commune. I carry the karma of a few hundred groundhogs and one thieving raccoon. I wonder how I’ll have to settle up in the next life. And I wonder about my other rodent victims, the muskrats. I did some trapping with my brother around that time, mostly muskrats. We were out together before first light to run a hundred trap line, but he made most of the money. He actually had the ability to skin the copses, a part of the process I was willing to bargain away ninety percent of the profit just to avoid. We both set the traps in the holes, at the entrances on the banks and under the water. We both staked down the chains, so they couldn’t drag the traps away. He killed all the rats that were not dead already with a Louisville slugger. I suppose I was an accessory to the killings as well, since I helped. One of them had almost gnawed off a leg when we sent him out of the park. Several achieved success with this grotesque method of escape. We even caught one with only one front paw. Once, we fought a mink that had decided that he had found this muskrat corpse first, and had certain property rights. A mink is actually an animal that borders on cute. It looks exactly like a little mink stole, except it will not sit still like a stole, so it’s hard to get a good look at one. It moves very fast in any and every direction at once, and hitting it is akin to trying to connect with a hummingbird. This particular mink was not cute in any way. It jumped all over the both of us, delivering such quick and vicious bites as to draw blood in a dozen planes in less than ten seconds. It sprang from one to the other in a blur of fur, while my brother alternatively cracked himself or me with the ball bat. Not once did he actually connect with the mink. When we came one, ripped and bleeding and black and blue from the battle, it looked as if we had been attacked by at least a lion. My mother laughed all the while she patched us up. But muskrats were part of my winter, just as ground hogs were part of my summer. I lived a life woven into the seasons like the seamless threads of fine cloth. As soon as the ground thawed, I helped plant onions, walking a blank between the rows to keep a true line. After the planting, there was gathering. My seasons were identified by their gifts: morels, puffballs, wild asparagus, and in the summer, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries. The fall was the time of apples, pears and pumpkins, like edible icons of time’s passing. Everything gathered was eaten or preserved for the winter, a meaningful and almost magical connection to the movement of time. Across from our house was Dombrowski’s farm, where I worked for fifty cents an hour baling hay, picking strawberries or feeding cattle. I could not hit the neighbor’s house with a rock if I threw it as hard as I could. I could yell at the top of my lungs and he couldn’t hear me. I suppose it was this openness, wide enough to let the yell dissipate to a whisper by the time it got there, that influenced my way of looking at the world. I see myself now, looking back on those yeas, as a figure in a landscape something like an enormous old quilt. Patches of it are lovely and almost richer than reality, Other squares are tattered, ripped open, moth-eaten. Others are simply holes in the shape of a space. Some seem eerily like the surface of the moon. Only a few years later, when Neil Armstrong from Wapakoneta, stepped off the ladder into the desolate dust, “for all mankind,” he could have shot that video in Harrison County. I have always felt the openness, the forest’s intimacy, the expansive moonscape and meadows, all the relative emptiness of this place, was a wonderful accident of my youth. It wasn’t always pretty, and it often was lonely, but it was never dirty and crowded. I have since come to live near the city with neighbors close enough to hear in the summer when the windows are open. You learn to accept house after house and car after car. But you can never get the same feeling about raspberries or pumpkins, magically exploding out of the ground, increasing exponentially like an exploding universe, when all you have is a grocery store to connect them to. Once, when I was about six, my Uncle John took me out looking for morels. These tawny, delicate creatures hid their delicious presence deep in the woods on steep hillsides in the shade and shadow. I had eaten them several times and found the flavor wonderful, at once nutty and meat-like, the essence of Spring. We searched in places he alone knew and it was hard work. He was a big man, overweight and red-faced. He always seemed to be straining, grunting, breathing hard. We climbed steep grades holding roots to pull ourselves up. When we found some of our quarry, we would kneel like pirates who had found gold, and laugh out loud with uncontained delight., It was a treasure hunt and we were getting rich. After we had visited all his secret places, he took a circuitous trail back. We stopped in a pine wood and he showed me a Boletus, so beautiful and normal looking you might think it was a prefect mushroom. He took it in his hands and broke the cap. On contact with the air, it turned a deep indigo color. “The blue is a sure sign of poison,“ he said. Over the years, I became familiar with the process of strip mining. I even worked for the coal company, while earning my way through college. I was assigned to a foreman who put me where I was needed. I might be a flagman directing huge trucks over dirt roads. I might sweep up the shop or drive a flatbed from one site to another. The strangest job I had was with a pulp crew for the largest earthmover in the world. It worked day and night to rearrange the land in an upside down fashion, The “spoil,” as it was called, was what was left when the machines moved on. A huge mountain of debris was heaped next to a pit, the other side of which was a sheer cliff where the vein petered out. The cliff itself was called a spoil bank and it truly is “spoiled.” The Gem of Egypt was the name of this monstrous piece of equipment. It stood as tall as an eight-story building among all the ill-assorted end-dumps and front-loaders, draglines and drills that swarmed about it like an army of mechanical accomplices. And dwarfed to the size of ants, men swarmed around it, moving cables, operating equipment and pumping water. I ran houses thick as my thigh from the rapidly filling hole over the nearest hillside. Portable pumps that had to be started like lawn mowers sucked the discolored water away from the tracks and cables. I worked and watched while a whole hill disappeared into piles of unrecognizable tailings. And coal, black as hematite, shine, jet-slick in the sun, was loaded on the backs of enormous Euclid trucks with twelve-cylinder Cummins diesel engines so loud most the drivers gradually went deaf. It was an awesome display of Man conquering Nature. More or less. Many times, after the “bull gang” had moved the huge pieces of equipment away and the land had been left alone, the acids and ores in the soil would leach out into the streams and turn them orange and useless. Fish would gasp and die. Muskrats and ground hogs would flee, if they could, and what was left was a fetid, useless, wasteland, the spoils. I could show you places. I suppose the men who did this had a rationalization of their own in mind. I don’t know if it was Russians they were fighting by rating the earth. Who knows who knows. Perhaps, like me, they needed the money for a good purpose, and what the earth gave, mushrooms or minerals, was theirs to take. Whatever their reason, I was an accomplice and that too is part of my karma, like the cute woodchucks I blasted like some mad assassin. I haven’t used my rifle since I went to Ohio State. It was November, my freshman year. I was walking across the oval and started to notice people crying. Women, at first; then I notice men, too. I walked past a knot of students with a radio and the voice of the newsman came to me in snatches. I reached the dorm and got to my floor, where I ran into a friend. He was crying and asked me if I had heard. “Heard what?” “The President,” he said. “He’s been shot in the head. He’s dead.”
I have been writing since I was 12 years old. I have been published in dozens of literary magazines, most notably The Paris Review, Green House, The Ohio Journal, The California Quarterly, The Rocky Mountain Review, The Minnesota Review, Indiana Writes, Aspen Anthology and others. I have also written and published essays, short stories and a memoir, Coal & Ice, published by in 1982 by the now defunct Yellow Pages Press. This book is currently out of print but I am working on a second edition to be published through Lulu.