Marjorie Stelmach


Storms on that lake came on with a sudden force,
but we weren’t afraid. Older, more experienced hands

would take charge and right things in a blink.
Our tasks were not hard, we worked the ropes, cast nets,

tended sails—skills a man is born to almost. But our new life
was altogether other. Heady stuff. You never knew where

he’d be off to next, but we were young and loved God hard.
We reveled in the risk. Still, at times it went too far. He’d have us

breaking Sabbath—no transgression, he could cite the text—
striding the fields, gleaning. He’d be laughing, shouting

to the sky, or some such thing, and then, he’d turn to us,
and there’d be tears, just streaming, carving furrows

down his cheeks. The earth would swirl and spill and,
sudden as a storm, we’d be in fields of another season,

opened for the seeding, fresh and new. Like children,
we were ready to tumble into any open arms,

dash through whatever door was left ajar, as long as he
was there to lead us. But in an instant the wind could change,

smelling of carnage, metallic, foul, as if a terrible battle
had only just moved off for richer spoils in the next village.

Or we’d spread our straw in someone’s shed, tired
from the day, the dust, the crowds, and he’d begin to talk.
His voice—you can’t know how it was—the strangeness
of his words. Beyond me, most of it, but he said they weren’t

for us, these tales, though one day we’d be called upon to answer
for our hearing them. So yes, we knew. Something lay ahead,

something we hadn’t signed on for. And here’s the worst of it:
at times we wished his death. I can’t have been alone in this.

Or, maybe not his death exactly, more a longing for an ending,
any ending. It was love that kept us there together, on the edge

of prayer and—though we never spoke of it—betrayal.
How safe those fishing boats seemed now. Were we only homesick?

More likely, terror at the fact of no one else to answer for our lives.
Now, when the storms came down, we were the oldest hands on deck.
One time, we were singing, heavy-eyed, but, I swear, awake.
I saw his body cut clean against the night, its very edges raised,

like letters burned in wax—a seal. Another time, a wind blew in
that tore at us, our hair, our beards, our robes. We clutched

the forearm or shoulder nearest us, as if a chain of us together
might stand up to it. To what?  We felt a vast upheaval at the roots

of things, a soundless fury flung against us like a curse. What to say
to that?  We said nothing. Three years, and then we lost him.

Afterwards, we traveled on alone to lands we’d only heard of.
Or never heard of. Those parables of his stood us in good stead.

Later, we told our own. But to what end? He never said what
he wanted us to do, only to follow. We wanted to go home.

We never did. Instead, somewhere along the way a moment came
when we began—as though we’d had a choice in it—to lead.

Early Onset with Quicksand and Pythons

On one of our walks last winter,
           you warned me about the pythons.
Joking, I thought. But week after week,
           pythons kept coming up. By summer,
your pace had slowed. Names evaded you,
           students mostly. Then, colleagues.
Soon, your sentences faltered. You shuffled.
           One day, you halted abruptly, alarmed
at a crack in the sidewalk and certain
           we’d come to the edge of a drop-off.

Pythons turned up in the headlines that fall—
           Burmese invaders of record-breaking lengths,
spreading alarmingly through the Everglades.
           But you had a plan. With grizzlies or elk,
the rule, you explained, was get big:
           fill your lungs to capacity, spread
your elbows, hulk. You were pretty sure
           it would work on pythons.

All winter in the care center, pythons
           invaded your dreams. You confessed
you were frightened for your daughters:
           how could they ever get big enough
to survive? Your fears took me back
           to a story I’d heard—a eulogy really,
at my brother’s memorial service.
           His best friend from childhood told how,
as kids they’d sit around Saturday mornings
           arguing over the most ridiculous stuff, like:

What if you fell in a pool of quicksand? Is it
           better to struggle to reach for a branch
on the edge, or spread yourself flat and wait
           to be rescued? The quarrels morphed into
contests: whose breath would be first to give out
           when both of them sank completely
under the surface? My brother, he finished,
           nearly sobbing, had let him win.

I’ve read that, these days, bounty hunters
    patrol the Everglades searching for pythons.
I wish I could tell you how right you’d been
    to prepare us, could thank you, could
reassure you your daughters have grown
    big enough to scare off the common monsters.
As for the rest of us, we’re all still here, holding
    our breath as we wait to be rescued.

When I think of you now, I think of whales—
    another true story—how they started
in the seas like the rest of us, then moved
    onto land where they ruled the earth
for millions of years. They were really big,
    the largest predator ever, so mostly,
they died of natural causes. But then,
    for no reason anyone knows, they turned
and walked back into the sea.

Whales swam off Florida’s Gulf Coast back
    when the state was mostly submerged.
They swim there today—endangered now.
    Thirty million years of evolution, and still,
they haven’t learned how to breathe underwater.
    I wonder if they’ve had second thoughts.
If asked, I’d advise them to stay in the ocean.
     Life grows more perilous daily on earth—
quicksand everywhere, all these pythons.

Marjorie Stelmach has published five volumes of poems, most recently Falter (Cascade, 2017). Her sixth book, Walking the Mists, is scheduled for publication this spring (Ashland Poetry Press). In addition to an earlier issue of Innisfree, individual poems have recently appeared in The Cresset, Cumberland River Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, Image, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, and Sou’wester.



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