She took their hearts, their
withered and whitened hearts,
and strung them like beads of
a necklace and hung them around
her neck, leaving all else to be
consumed in the hot embers.
from The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legends,
by Theodora Kroeber
…he stopped, and forgetful, alas, on the edge of light
his will conquered, he looked back, now, at his Eurydice
In that instant, all his effort was wasted…
—from Orpheus and Eurydice,
by Virgil, Georgics: Book IV
A loon submerges itself in my blood
And the riled water
Rushes through me, closes over my estranged cry.
Shivering deep, I sweat myself awake:
Here is wind don’t look back
And even wet pines could flame.
Often, falling, taking everyone with you,
You’ll know what I mean.
The portage, only a muddy path
Of pines overbearing, lengthens.
We laugh, stumble over new growth: escape.
Our flight, leaving dreamt ashes,
Burns as green as forest.
Even here, in these logged parts, there’s virgin timber left.
Old rain dampens our nerves.
The mosquitoes, down with wet wings,
Wait for breaks in the weather.
Black flies swarm..
And the loon, watching us drag steel traps
Deep into the newest growth,
Tosses a necklace of ash white hearts
And dances, stuttering, into Lake Superior
muscles stiffening, stroked miles pull
and I am held together, tighter,
overcoming new distance.
A hawk, spinning, claws with our mood.
We wade: there is rushing: we are its hold.
Grasping gunnel, we pull upstream, the force of water
is in us: we are against it.
Communicate? With this wilderness?
Here? All I have learned is survival.
You know. Fish hooks from branches,
axes out of stone: survival,
acting out the stone age.
The hawk, driven up by our current,
Waits. We are prey
overwhelmed by hunger.
What control? straining Into white water:
aluminum scrapes my nerves.
Burned black by sun, lichen survive another year
and I see us, starving north-men,
another winter in our minds
pounding them, rock against rock, for food: the snow,
spray off our paddles, accumulates on a frozen lake
and we are caught
deep in our own resources
stirring, over a dark flame,
the lichen’s white interior.
Mist catches on the water
and no loon cries death.
I see ghostly trappers
stroking: silence: it is a wet hell
and I am breathing its fire.
Dead were buried in haste,
Early winter excusing prayer.
No time, no time.
This is a world for trapping
and little more to be done.
Rain, late, in the afternoon,
washes our shallow graves.
Old forces surface.
Birch canoes, sunken ones, glide silent armies.
They have taken us by surprise
and we are not surprised.
How many friends, enemies
Have taken paddles in bony calloused hands
I yell: our ghosts,
wrapped in their own world,
Do not hear, or care.
They head toward our next portage;
and clumsily running into water
I curse in a loon’s voice.
I see visionary bears, cathedral pines
sway in medieval mood; the moon,
through dark stained glass,
illuminates our green reluctance.
I already smell the fire.
Hands, white with flour,
wave in my darkness.
Sure, we’ve caught the limit:
3 lbs. Walleyes, large Pike hang
strung from the front gunnel.
Our path, discovered by trappers,
winds toward open lake.
beasts, having collected around,
follow. The darkness
drumming our canoe.
How did you say bears rape women?
Our performance, staged on pine needles,
changes in nature,
a curtain of northern lights opening
smoke, darkness in our vision,
the pines even darker,
green cut wood smolders little light.
A cold ash spins
and we talk, verbalizing silence.
We have pushed each other farther,
farther into civilization,
farther into inner wilderness.
we said we loved each other,
black flies biting our sweat;
and mosquitoes, spinning from smoke, wait
impatient to still our blood.
Trappers must have shivered
Beards, filthy teeth, unwakened hands groping
Fragile canoes, giant furs:
Visionaries who drank
Deeper wilderness than we know
Returning as we are,
Cold in fall,
Entrepreneurs of exotic skin.
A loon arises: a morning cry
A hungry fish, larger than life
Surges upward, takes a young loon as bait
Falls back A silver lungful splash.
Sleep, not gentle even in nature, is startled.
The loon wails death
into daylight: not as dream: but wild fear.
Lake rushes into wind, white caps
and we strain, holding course.
Today, if we return, we will sail: two paddles,
a poncho billowing.
We come: our muddy portage is marked
and we come
stroking miles of lake.
It is wild country we hunt: not for game.
I unfold the map
and we are lost: or hopeful.
We come, pushing swamp shore. Wild rice,
crying, calf deep, tugging canoe.
This is our landing.
Feathering oak paddle
I pull out of myself, canoe drifting
a last stroke
Wet in open silence.
Obsessed, and in this nature, we talk
around morning coals: stumbling tales
escape on foot, desperate from mosquitoes
and cut on dreams:
Royal Mounties closing, capturing.
We give up, cold air at our backs.
Exhausted, the daylight moon hands down penalties.
But we are not guilty: and sleep.