The God of Nothingness

Mark Wunderlich

My father fell from the boat.
His balance had been poor for some time.
He had gone out in the boat with his dog
hunting ducks in a marsh near Trempealeau, Wisconsin. 
No one else was near
save the wiry farmer scraping the gutters in the cow barn
who was deaf in one ear from years of machines—
and he was half a mile away.
My father fell from the boat
and the water pulled up around him, filled
his waders and this drew him down.
He descended into water the color of weak coffee.
The dog went into the water too,
thinking perhaps this was a game. 
I must correct myself—dogs do not think as we do—
they react, and the dog reacted by swimming
around my father’s head. This is not a reassuring story
about a dog signaling for help by barking,
or, how by licking my father’s face, encouraged him
to hold on. The dog eventually tired and went ashore
to sniff through the grass, enjoy his new freedom
from the attentions of his master,
indifferent to my father’s plight. 
The water was cold, I know that,
and my father has always chilled easily. 
That he was cold is a certainty, though
I have never asked him about this event. 
I do not know how he got out of the water.
I believe the farmer went looking for him
after my mother called in distress, and then drove
to the farm after my father did not return home. 
My mother told me of this event in a hushed voice,
cupping her hand over the phone and interjecting
cheerful non sequiturs so as not to be overheard. 
To admit my father’s infirmity
would bring down the wrath of the God of Nothingness
who listens for a tremulous voice and comes rushing in
to sweep away the weak with icy, unloving breath. 
But that god was called years before
during which time he planted a kernel in my father’s brain
which grew, freezing his tongue,
robbing him of his equilibrium.
The god was there when he fell from the boat,
whispering from the warren of my father’s brain,
and it was there when my mother, noting the time,
knew that something was amiss. This god is a cold god,
a hungry god, selfish and with poor sight.
This god has the head of a dog.

More by Mark Wunderlich

Difficult Body

A story: There was a cow in the road, struck by a semi--
half-moon of carcass and jutting legs, eyes
already milky with dust and snow, rolled upward

as if tired of this world tilted on its side.
We drove through the pink light of the police cruiser,
her broken flank blowing steam in the air. 

Minutes later, a deer sprang onto the road
and we hit her, crushed her pelvis--the drama reversed,
first consequence, then action--but the doe,

not dead, pulled herself with front legs
into the ditch. My father went to her, stunned her
with a tire iron before cutting her throat, and today I think

of the body of St. Francis in the Arizona desert,
carved from wood and laid in his casket,
lovingly dressed in red and white satin

covered in petitions--medals, locks of hair,
photos of infants, his head lifted and stroked,
the grain of his brow kissed by the penitent.

O wooden saint, dry body. I will not be like you,
carapace. A chalky shell scooped of its life. 
I will leave less than this behind me.

Winter Study

Two days of snow, then ice
and the deer peer from the ragged curtain of trees.

Hunger wills them, hunger
pulls them to the compass of light

spilling from the farmyard pole.
They dip their heads, hold

forked hooves
above snow, turn furred ears

to scoop from the wind
the sounds of hounds, or men.

They lap at a sprinkling of grain,
pull timid mouthfuls from a stray bale.

The smallest is lame, with a leg
healed at angles, and a fused knob

where a joint once bent.
It picks, stiff, skidding its sickening limb

across the ice's dark platter.
Their fear is thick as they break a trail

to the center of their predator's range.
To know the winter

is to ginger forth from a bed in the pines,
to search for a scant meal

gleaned from the carelessness
of a killer.

Prayer for a Birthday


My privilege and my proof, pressing your eternal skin to mine—
I feel your fingers touching down on the crown of my head 

where I pray they remain during this life and in the next.  
The intricacies of your world astound me.

You flickered through the rooms where my mother dwelt,
when I was naked and formless as a seal, sensitive 

to the tides of her body.  I did not come too early onto land, 
did not emerge until my days were written

on the translucent pages of your enormous book.
The great lid of your eye peeled back to see I was not yet whole.

I remember today the day of my birth.
Your words washed that which clung to me from the other side, 

bound to me the promised ghost.  
I was dipped and sponged, cut free, 

delivered as I was like a lamb lodged in his dam.  Tears and pain
were her price, and I was handed over to be wiped with straw.  

You built me, bone by bone, counting
the hairs that would one day thatch my crown,

building cleverness in my hands, weakness in my knees, 
a squint and a taste for cake.  You showed me 

the dip of a man’s clavicle, arrow of ankle and calf, 
weaving in me a love of those bodies like my own, 

yet not mine.  When you turned to your next task
a shadow crossed the room stirred from the muddy banks 

rimed with ice.  In the spot where my skull was soft
it set down its stylus and inked a bruise—

a scrap used to blot a leaking pen.  Since then
my mind has raced toward the brink, spun

and knit and torn out the same silvery threads
only to wind them up again.  Still, the bargain

you made without my consent has left me 
here to ponder your airy limbs striding through the sky,

the red rustle of your gown.  A season ago, I looked out upon the verdure
of the small meadow below the house—boggy in parts—

the pollard willows gnarling and sipping from gnat-speckled pools,
the turkeys scratching under the sweep of green

as it prepared to die back for another year, littered with mute papery tongues.
You are easier to see when you denude your world with decay.  

And so I saw you there, flashed in the shallow water,
parting the curtain of the willow fronds and warming my face with light.

My mother and father call me and sing,
sweet and tuneless, their voices worn down by your turning wheel.

You have kept us together for half a man’s natural years,
these last the tenderest as their bodies 

break and their minds dip deeper into dust
to bring forth the features of distance.

My day will be spent here, in the middle of things, 
feeding split logs into the stove, cats coiling through rooms

as the snow ticks at the windows’ double panes.
I will read a book with snow at its center,

in a forest lost inside a forest in the north, the sun
an afterthought in the darkest days of the year.

I am thankful for all that buffers me from the cold,
all that binds me to my clan, 

though I see a future strange and tuneless
as I push forward into the mind’s blinding field of white.

Related Poems

The Song in the Dream

The song itself had hinges. The clasp on the eighteenth-century Bible
had hinges, which creaked; when you released the catch, 
the book would sigh and expand.

The song was of two wholes joined by hinges, 
and I was worried about the joining, the spaces in between 
the joints, the weight of each side straining them.