The Act of Telling

by Sammy Parker
Years past its prime,
the old barn now holds only
the night’s cool, pale moonbeams;
daytime’s silent, sunlit slants; and
faint, crackly dust
—coaxed upward at a footfall or by
slight breezes through uneven cracks in
gray, sun-bleached walls—
the dry, brittle residue of
thousands of long-gone bales of
golden southern hay.
The sloping fields are
long fallow, random shrieks of crows
the solitary sound of import, like
rifle shots on a windless day in
a vast, hushed, snow-filled forest.

Around the corner of
the time-skewed fence,
the slumbering house
abuts a rocky downward slope,
descending to a tree-lined density and
narrow river rapids, flowing
cold and clear from
the deep cleft between
winding high ridges,
above and far away.

The house, too, is empty.

I remember myriad days in
the 1950s and early ‘60s:

white clapboards old even then;
the pockmarked tin roof, echoing
the somnolent patter of spring rain and bearing
the winter weight of heavy mountain snow;
the spacious, staid wrap-around porch;
sultry watermelon-and-cold-beer summer afternoons;
Blue Ridge crisp and cool of autumn;
tall oaks, pines, and hemlocks
framing the view of
the deep, elongated valley;
the swish and rustle of wind through trees; and                                                        
the muffled sonority of river rush below.

In sagging
cane-bottom chairs and
worn hardwood rockers,
we spoke and listened in a kind of
crosstalk animation:
my dad and mom;
my brother, I, and scruffy cousins;
eccentric and unfamiliar aunts and uncles;
and a motley, shifting assortment of
friends and neighbors:
loggers and small-acre farmers,
men in workday-sweat-stained fedoras,
bib overalls, and worn flannel shirts,
rolling out of Ford pickups, full of
Bud, Early Times, convivial bluster,
deep in common sense and
no pretense to guile or sophistication;
strong, no-nonsense women, full of
recipes and gossip and
vague tendrils of
unspoken love and longing,
complacent yet wary in the way of
strength, the residue of
oft-tested resolve.

All of us—family and friends and
I by default— seemed
quietly subservient to
my grandmother and her sister,
matriarchs by silent acclaim,
consorts long gone, dead and otherwise.
They spoke slowly, no thought rushed, and
laughed with pitch and tone like
fresh-churned butter and blackstrap molasses;
sturdy, steady women with few complaints,
little in the way of
self-pity, braggadocio, or
superficial religiosity.

Damnedest thing I’d ever seen,
and for many years,
I had no idea, no idea at all, of
why or how this all came to be or
what was                                                                                                                     
the locus of those women’s
wordless centrality.

At the old kitchen table in mid-winter ’70,
she shared with me her part.
The house was still and
the room too hot from
wood-fire heat and window panes
covered outside in thick, translucent plastic.
Beyond the over-warm and the
big, old quietness of it all,
wind-whipped snow blew
down the valley from
the cold, high, eastern mountain tops.

No one else around
—don’t remember why—
just she and I,
the boy grown up,
the old woman winding down,
some trust in me,
some sense of rightness in
time and place.

In her slow, southern lilt—
words low pitched and gruff with
age and Tube Rose snuff and
brow-creased pauses meant, I guessed,
to get it all just right—
I heard of

the death by gunshot of her husband
on an early, bitter morning, February ’33;
the pain and deprivation of Depression
made real and stark and human faced;
the smug and giddy ‘20s,
lumber and crops, land, money to burn;
the bookend wars of horror,
her oldest son, my sad and sunken uncle,
returned from the last,
bereft of soul and spirit and meaning,
all left in tatters in
the warm and bloody waters of
the South Pacific;
small joys in the shiny-bright ‘50s;
birth and death, marriage and divorce,
strain and tenderness;                                                                                                 
the interplay of love and
seething, frayed tension,
reconciliations and estrangements;
the mystifying, enigmatic, alchemic
push and pull and power of blood across
her scattered, complex family;
the extent of her efforts,
the limits of her influence;
the hope and
the loss of hope; and
the unexpressed, relentless
spirit to persevere
— always, always to persevere—
that did not require
understanding or articulation,
neither hers nor mine.

She ended, purged, it seemed.
I sat, quiet and rapt,
exhausted by
the sweep and depth of
what I now knew,
not equipped to process all but
somehow sure without
demand of thought or analysis
that future weights would be easier to
understand if not to bear;
that her hard-edged truths
were for me
some new strength; and that in
some rich, inexplicable way,
our lives would be better:

mine for the knowing,
hers for the sharing.

SAMMY PARKER taught English at Western Carolina University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and had poems published in multiple editions of the literary journals at both. A native of the mountains of western North Carolina, he lives in Georgia, is a U. S. Air Force veteran, and worked in technical publications at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Among too many others to mention, he enjoys the poetry of Whitman and Billy Collins and the fiction of Hemingway, Faulkner, Styron, Toni Morrison, Geraldine Brooks, and Elmore Leonard.  Poems of his were published in Belle Rêve Literary Journal and Red River Review.


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