Ron Rash

Shelton Laurel

Sister, I have come to understand

the world will have its way with us despite

what we might wish, or once believed. Last week

I watched our neighbors die like snakes. Gut-shot,

then hacked with hoes until their moaning ceased.

Shelton’s youngest son was one of them,

just thirteen years old. His eyes met mine,

but like his father and brothers didn’t speak.

It was past words by then but still I thought

of all the times the five of us had shared

a hunting camp, spun lies at Allen’s Store,

better times before we let this war

settle like a vulture in these hills,

a vulture never sated. Though I aimed

my rifle to the right it didn’t matter,

others found the mark with lead or hoe.

And when it ended the sun burned in the sky

like any other day, the French Broad still

flowed southward down to Asheville. In the trees

fox squirrels chattered, wrens still sang their song.

By noon the snow had turned from white to red.

Our sergeant danced like a dervish on the grave,

vowed he’d push them deeper into hell.

And I was there, dear sister, I was there,

and still feel I am there although I hide

miles away, deep inside this cavern

and write this letter with what light is left

in one last stub of candle, light enough

to get this letter written, bring to you,

leave it by your pillow while you sleep,

then make my way back here where I will stay.

A branch runs through this cavern, in it trout

whose eyes are blind from years of too much dark.

I envy them for all they haven’t seen,

and maybe with enough time I might too

cease to see these things I tell you of,

that drape upon my soul like heavy shackles,

and then return to you, resume a life

stilled like the hands of a broken pocket watch

beside a stream bank deep in Shelton Laurel.