The Nest (Or, a Father Considers the Odds of Raising Successful Small-Mouth Bass Offspring)

That afternoon at the cabin

we sat by the river

after I had cut up those small trees

that you dropped at my feet with the tractor –

(an offering, a challenge,

one that I tore through haphazardly with the new chainsaw,

black and yellow like a drunken, terrible bumblebee).

It was quiet after all that noise,

the dog (our fourth) now gone, our offspring absent-

(one washing other people’s dishes in dirty water for $7.75 an hour,

one in the throes of new love, thrashing in the shallows, and then

one that has swum out to her own sea)

so we sat without them

on cheap and dirty plastic chairs

that had sat outside all winter

and swatted at mosquitoes,

talking a little but mostly just

watching the male bass

swim back and forth around its nest,

guarding the 20,000 – 

give or take a few hundred –

eggs ditched by the female – leaving him

to patrol the nest alone, watching for

panfish looking to gorge on eggs coming in from the left

while he is preoccupied with crayfish coming in from the right –

there are always more predators.

(Five bass fry will live long enough to grow ten inches long;

it’s better that the father not consider these odds,

yet, how can he not?)

A muskrat broke the perimeter –

rat-tail moving side to side like a pink snake, but

the bass didn’t break patrol.

A father knows, or thinks he knows, what is a threat.

Really, I had almost certainly just waded right through the nest

through the muck and rocks and branches

(a sweaty, mosquito-repellent covered Godzilla

sending translucent globes helplessly into the current).

But we kept watching the bass,

circling his trampled nest while the sun

slowly arced to the west, and north,

the surface of the river sparkling like

glass from a broken mirror.

Behind us, up the hill,

no one tended the fire;

and though it was light, still, for so long,

in that week leading up to the solstice,

it was too late for us

to go home.

 

Falling Stars

Outside in the drizzle of spring,

green, green is the grass –

lilacs are tiny purple fists waiting to unfold

to again welcome May –

once more trotting out its new beginning-

with sweet applause;

Inside, the window is cracked

because of the paint, and you,

at the far end of 16, stand

without a ladder, pulling plastic

glow-in-the-dark stars off of your ceiling,

cracking some, flinging them to the ground.

They have a dim glow, so

one by one I gather them, even the broken ones,

and consign them to an empty drawer.

This earth grows ever older, older,

sliding slowly toward the sun, but

each year it becomes a gangly teenager again

with ragged patches of grass waiting to be mowed,

dandelion acne spotting green fields,

saplings sprouting up in importune cracks,

robins pinning down their mates in a mad scramble,

frogs croaking and peeping in awkward turn,

barred owls rambling late into the night, looking

for someone they can’t name. Who?

But our paths are segments,

not lines or vectors, so

blue, blue is my heart, and oh!

You will not become young again –

I will not find you curled up

with your puppy under your covers,

we will not ever again make up voices

and quarrels for your stuffed toys at night,

and we will never read aloud the last few chapters

of How To Train Your Dragon –

it will always be unfinished for us.

Perhaps you are thinking of all of this

as you leave this room behind,

but I think probably not

as I watch you standing there,

peeling the last star away from the ceiling,

walking over it, without a glance back –

you will chart your course by new stars,

and you will not,

you cannot,

come back this way.

22 Years Later

I.

On the way up to the lake house,

the back of the vehicle jammed

with things of this earth:

snacks, casseroles, a snowboard,

three pairs of snow pants, a snow shovel for the ice rink,

skates, sleeping bags, water,

wine –

and after passing barn upon barn,

acre upon acre

of crumbling stone and faded red paint

in the deepening twilight,

Suamico to Pulaski to Gillet to Suring

we pass one of the new kind of barns

that look like a huge tent, a cylinder on its side,

shaved off at the bottom so it doesn’t

roll away across the fields, bouncing

across the Midwest,

filled with nothing but light, as though if

pierced by telephone poles or church steeples

the light from the inside would wind

into the black frigid night like smoke,

bright swirling ropes

to tether the stars.

II.

I don’t pretend to understand that light

is a particle and a wave, a thing and an action

but the I know that barn is a belly,

pregnant with light

in the winter blackness –

though I carry this body forward, onward,

nearing fifty years on the planet but now

there will be no more copies of me, just those

already out in the world,

and in this vehicle hurtling across the frozen ground,

and those in the ground;

I once heard that some languages have no way

to express what could have been – it is or it is not,

it happened or it did not,

but even without words I know those mothers

with children lost think about

their may-have-been faces and their

could-have-been dreams,

and what it would be like to embrace them some day

when they would come home for Thanksgiving,

stamping their feet on the rug

to shake off the snow, someone shy

waiting behind,

and I know they also wonder

what would become of those

that would not have been.

III.

On the drive home with leftovers, unfolded clothes,

and wet boots thrown carelessly into the back –

without wine but with added memories and bruises,

snow comes down in slanting sheets:

Townsend, Lakewood, Crivitz,

so that there is no road ahead at all,

only the headlights catching a

conical cross-section of light

in the starless night,

particle or wave, thing or action,

its job is the same –

my middle almost-driving son

sits buckled next to me while I feign complete calm

as oncoming snowplows obliterate the windshield,

and the edge of the road pulls at my tires;

he selects music

and hands me the coffee from

the gas station, a beacon of swirling white light

along the highway far behind us already –

this son who may not even have been at all,

had Jacob lived, he is my version of Seth

after Abel was killed by Cain, though

Jacob never cried out

at all.

Can a person be

replaced? It’s ridiculous to even say,

but as far as I can tell,

there is no diminution of light

unlike the red paint fading and cracking and peeling

on the barns I cannot see –

whether particle or wave it

persists – and though I was pierced once,

the light, escaping,

doubled,

then tripled,

and I just didn’t see,

couldn’t see,

cannot yet see

where some of it

waits

for me.

Holding Fire

That night

it was snowing

like crazy but we left

the kitchen in disarray

to pick her up

and we drove

through half-deserted white

billowed streets to see

the pretty lights at

the botanical

gardens

I walked

ahead so you

could stroll alone

with her through

the winter night

lit by

imagined dragons,

undersea creatures,

lightning bolts,

swans on a frozen

lake, the

real horses

and the wagon

carrying families

jingling somewhere

behind us and then

we finally met up

at the barrel

holding fire, reaching

our hands out

to the blazing circle

and then

taking them

back again.

Braces

Something about

seeing your skull

in black and white and

pulled nonchalantly

from the manila folder

makes me feel loose inside

as though all of my bones

have let go of each other

for the moment, and are

floating around unmoored

in my limbs,

my chest.

The skull is death, it’s

for pirates, and archaeologists,

and murderers, and a universal

sign of danger that is, or was –

so seeing yours laid out flat:

your teeth, the space for your nose,

the holes for your bright blue eyes

without the benefit of your face –

is like being dragged

just decades into the future,

where none of us need braces,

or toothpaste, or manila folders,

or excuses for missing school,

or one another.