archives spring 2008



The Big Dry, Montana, 1985

Dust roostertails over the county road, blossoms like a dirt flower above the cottonwoods, rains down on our hands and faces as we splash through what’s left of the river.

Pours down the far hills and across the prairie.  Snaps the bunchgrass, fills the air with dust, the soap smell of sage.

Grandma’s hiding under the bed again.  Small fists of hail beat against the gravel and the wheat slowly folds on itself.

In the dark I kick the sheets from the bed, splay my sweating arms and legs.  Somewhere, a dog  raises his snout to the moon and howls. 
There’s another kill in the north pasture.  My brother and I study the gnawed haunches, the empty cave of gut.  But the head and shoulders are untouched and I kneel, take the lamb’s face in my hands.

Takes dew from the grass before anyone wakes.

I find an old length of 2x4 and step over the snare-caught rabbit.  I steady, aim, and swing the board hard across its skull.  It jumps and screams.  I never knew rabbits could scream.  I hit it again and again and through my tears don’t notice when it goes limp. 

They pull up a camper and move the oldest girl out there when the bedrooms fill up.  Her face is a wide, white moon.  Her hair straw.  She’s never been to school.  I walk the county road to the river, and she watches me.

In the shallow, stagnant pools that are left, carp flap and suck for air.  We wait until they’re dead, then wing rocks at them.  A spray of dry, shining scales.

I set the rabbit in an old cage out back to keep it from the dog.  I wipe at my eyes and decide that if I can wash the blood out, I’ll skin it tomorrow and make a gift of the hide to the dark-haired girl who sits in the pew in front of us.

Father comes in from a day on the tractor, his neck and face blown raw.  Mother lays him down on the couch and rubs wool-wax into his skin.  My brother and I watch from the across the room.  She sings softly.  She is so tender with him.  He smiles up at her.  For a moment, they have forgotten us and everything else.

Bright clot of stars in the bowl of sky.

Grandma hands me an ice cube to run over my forehead, my lips.  She says she’s never seen it like this before.  She pauses, says it again.

Father brings three of them home in the bed of the truck.  My brother and I climb the wheel wells and dare each other to touch the fur, those claws, their blood and eyes.

The mountain’s on fire, the sun just a bright stone in a river of rippling smoke.  I breathe ash.

I wing my shirt over my head and run naked circles in the gravel.  Now I open my bird’s mouth wide to the sky.  It’s not much, but rain enough to cool the evening and wet the dust.

She slaps him hard on the head.  She yells some more and grabs him and turns him around and kicks him in the butt.  He falls down the porch steps, and I flinch.  She looks at me, asks if I want some too.  I say, No

We’re always the last to leave.  We always have everything to pray for.

It’s just not there anymore.

I spit on the whetstone like my father taught me and sharpen a slender blade.  But when I go out back, the rabbit’s alive, hopping slowly around the cage, matted with dirt and blood.


The Stone Eater

She does not understand how the time just after
her husband died, when she’d walk
crying for hours along the creek bank,
was so good. 
                    It’s true she is alone and the fields
are fallow still, the blown dust of them
in her eyes most of the time. But this spring
the creek ran deep in its rocky bed,
and a cool wind licked the whole length of her
and the valley. Now, in the evenings, as one
the antelope rise on willow-thin limbs
and delicately lip the tall grass. And soon
the strong young man who is her neighbor
will climb into his tractor for the harvest,
and the sun will be where it should in the sky
and the moon in the night and the mouths of stars
opening and opening:  Her heart
and the world have found this usual way
to go on. 
               Yet to remember that good pain
of her long ago walks, she pulls a cold,
broken stone from the bottom of the creek
and sets it on her tongue. 


Joe Wilkins’s poems, stories, and essays have been recently published in Georgia Review,Missouri Review, Northwest Review, Orion, Pleiades, and Tar River Poetry, among other magazines and literary journals. Though born and raised in eastern Montana, on a stretch of high prairie everyone calls the Big Dry, he now teaches writing at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa.