THIRTEENTH IDYLL

The Women of My Childhood

 

Even today,

now the hands of memory—or, maybe, longing—

just barely reach where I keep looking

back on days fading away beyond return from the horizon,

I see you, the women of my childhood.

 

Aunt Maria, the one used to come and help

pull beets and dig potatoes. Matsys' young bride,

the autumn he carried her off in the rain through the bushes,

 

the open wagon full of men singing;

all through the summer her kerchief used to bob

white and small out of the thickets,

above the clayey, graying garden plots.

 

The Marchius sisters, all summer on the go

lugging milk up from pasture—and berries,

full buckets back from the woods;

the two of them, later on, in heavy wool stockings,

 

 

stout and reddened, bending their backs in the flax fields.

Songs I used to hear each fall were theirs,

high-voiced and sad, as they dragged through rain and wind

to pull up beets and potatoes; or staggered,

shaking out pitchforks of manure.

They were the ones I saw around the yard each spring,

while I was a child there: raking the orchard,

or digging away, prodding around in the flower garden,

planting the black bulbs for dahlias.

Out early Pentecost Sunday, my sister would sprinkle sand

fresh from the sandpit, in yellow handfuls along the flower paths.

She'd swept the rooms by then, made a quick run to the orchard

and brought back plum blossoms,

or sky-blue lilacs for the dining table;

then, tying her Sunday kerchief under the chin

she'd run out front again, where the horse stood rigged;

already up in the wagon—with flowers carved in the seat—

her brothers sat waiting.

 

Women I used to see back in those early years

and follow through winter, my face to the window,

as they shuffled by on icy walks; watch the bright flock of them

go laughing, chattering down the fieldpath,

past me and the grazing cattle,

then out along the ditch, into the rye.

Or standing by the cemetery gate,

once the wagon went past, with the dead in it,

I'd see women from all the far-flung households

 

trail by at a slow pace, singing

hymns in their high voices.

And when a hard rain wrecked the crop,

or storm set fire to a house

I'd hear them grieving like cranes.

 

Back then, I'd follow them and hear the whirr of their spinning

all through the fall; and on long winter evenings

I'd see each one lean over the same way,

wet her finger, then press her foot down

to keep the wheel turning and turning,

 

and each head nodding over the wheel

shone by lamplight, each in her own woman's dreams,

while I, the years I was a child there,

curled up in mother's bed

to watch, would hear

a cold hard snow sprinkle the window,

the windowframe shiver

 

So, even now, I see you

women of my childhood,

back where days fade, way beyond return, from the horizon.

 

 

 

 

Gold Fragrant Summer Nights

 

Hands still smell of honey and clover,

with fresh grass and cool evening-air on clothing.

How quiet it gets, with the mist rising,

with the last of the clanging pails,

shouting milkers, well-cranes straining

by the wooden watertroughs, all now

far off, the other side of the elms.

 

And farmhands back from leading horses out to graze

will be pacing the cold dew

with halter-cords in their hands.

Halfway back into the yard they'll stop

and listen for the junebugs, dropping off lindens,

or—somewhere a few homesteads over—

women sitting outside after supper,

in a circle, singing.

 

Now the crabfishers will have their nets in,

talking low as they stroll the riverside,

 

 

wading wet grass; or stretched on their backs

to look out on a clear sweep of the heavens

will speak their longings; or staring

as mist settles on their meadow will hear

a well creak, some solitary

wagon pass on down the road.

 

Over a long, slow while, milk pails leave off swinging,

the cattle settle down, and after one last stroke

field rigs being hauled in for the night stay put.

Doors swing shut, sheep quit their bleating.

Now there's only the summer night, only the wide flyway

shining bright above each homestead,

the fields still warm, holding their heat.

 

Yet even in this quiet, deep into the night,

the corncrake crying in the clover will not quit,

nor mole crickets way off, their clear crooning

still drifts across the fields.

And for a while yet, where eyes stay half-shut

behind slats of a hayshed, ears will hear

a night in summer, chiming gold.

And lying back on the riverbank,

with their nets staked out in the sedge,

the men there are the only ones still up

wide-eyed, under a shining August sky.

 

 

2.

 

 

Under a burning Australian sky

lies my Regina's grave. Burned by the sun,

with hot sands and cool nights like hands

caressing, keeping it safe.

 

Sleep, and go on sleeping, under your skyblue eyes; not that

I'll get to see them again, any more than they'll ever see

our faraway childhood sky. Still, I do keep them like two

tiny dew-beaded pearls.

 

That time we went together, one last time

across a flower-crested field, scanning

the hillsides for approaching rain,

then stopped in the doorway to a brokendown old house

and watched a bright green, rainwashed field,

shiny with beads of rain, and listened

to the thunder rumbling, the rain hissing in

over the hills.

 

Your eyes a rain-washed field,

two beads of rain.

Maybe I really

should not have taken your hand that time.

Maybe not, after all. Hands join like roots,

and not just to uncover lives.

 

Sleep, under the wide span of a silk horizon,

and go on listening to that strange balmy wind

gusting in through forests, level sands and laketops,

all that way across briny high seas

and faraway islands—

still listening for that faraway echo of childhood,

the one voice your friends had in common—

while I keep on going, growing more and more remote.

 

And where, with your eyes open wide, so clear and child-like,

are you now, Marcele—left behind as you were

in some small nameless town in central Germany—

and you, Vladas?

 

The time I met you two, that spring,

sunk in the teeming green at Wilhelmshohe,

guiding each other along past the falls

on your way down a gushing hillside in spring,

watching the high water, branches on trees,

you held hands all the while.

 

And it never crossed my mind, not once,

not even the time a whole bunch of us went singing

through flowering midsummer fields,

along the pale Wiesbaden streets—

I never once even happened to think . . .

 

the gray Hessen sky, all the pale little towns, would stay so entranced, listening

for the approaching laughter, those sweet friendships . . .

 

that it was all one woven into you all beauty

and love and suffering sleep little one sleep while

I keep going on to make my rounds complete.