after Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Once upon a time, my father was offered a shovel
and ten minutes alone with the prized stallion—Just don’t
kill him. Once upon a time, I asked about the apple-
knotted scar on my father’s back shoulder, as he dressed
for work: That’s from when Sammy tried to kill me.
Remember? Once upon a time, my father accepted a shovel
and the problem of answering violence without loosing
too much blood from Sammy’s chestnut body, nervous
in the stable. Once upon a time, I watched my father dare
to ride Sammy, who had only known breeding—: things
went fine, until his muzzle grazed a live wire that sent him
bucking, first with and then without the weight of my father
perched on his saddled back. Every witness there
broke open into a song called laughter. Once upon a time,
my father couldn’t trust himself to spill just the blood
owed, and so chose torture’s slow ember over a quick-
flamed revenge:—for one long week, Sammy submitted
to the pull of hunger, easing his desire through
the narrow stall bars for a mouthful of sweet oats,
and then the shovel’s handle came down like lightning
across his beautiful face. My father did this
twice each day, despite the wounded wonder delivered
upon both creatures. Once, Sammy escaped
and it took a lifetime to corral again the full force
of that gallop—to gather back the spirit and grace
of that temporary, hot-hearted freedom.
My mother said I should not do it,
but all night I turned the horses loose.
The farmhouse slept, the coyotes hunted noisily.
I was a boy then, my chest its own field flowered by restlessness.
How many ropes to corral a herd?
I had none but a stubborn concern with steady hands
and the darkness of the summer wind which moved right through me
the way the coyotes moved through the woods with voices
that seemed to mourn the moonlit limits of this release
and those who had prayed for release before me.
I pulled each horse through the opened barn doors,
all night out into the pasture with little resistance, all night my hands
buried in manes as if I were descending into a new understanding,
all night my path a way toward recovery.
And then carrying its own kind of clemency, against
the tall forest of sharp pines, the morning came,
and inside me was the deep-pitched presence a howl builds
at the lonely center of its bawl, before the throat
remembers again that other sweet mercy, silence.
The light climbed into the pasture.
The coyotes were crying and then were not.
And the pasture was—I could see as I led
the last warm body to field—full of memory and motion.