At the table, its yellow enamel gleamingin the sun washing in from this tiny kitchen's window,the woman shells fresh peas into a deep bowl,blue as the sky framed in the upper pane.She must be young: her swift fingers are smooth,straight as her gaze out the window, her angular facelineless, gold with reflected sun.
This is a chore she knows well;the bowl in her lap fills steadilyas her ivory radio pours rivulets of Debussyacross the countertop, yellow-ochre flecked with blue.
On the stove, rattling on the black iron burner,a teapot in the shape of a cat's head does its busy workwhile the soup for the evening meal blends and meldsbeside the milk warming in the azure creamer.There is no cat; but this is where it would be,here in the warmth, wrapped in fragrance and sun,dust-motes drifting, visible in the angling rays,while its glossy black ribcage rises and fallswith its easy breathing, its soundless sleep. [End Page 524]
False Dawn, Nebraska
Before first light the chime of birdsongtolls the moonfall, big and full in the west,Venus red and fat in the east's false dawn:cupped in the copse the call of oriole,round and bell-like in the Maytime fringe of leaves,falls like dew before the green breeze rises.
Field mice move among the newly sprung shafts,part them silently in the comforting dark,safe before the grizzled predatory cat appears,close-set crusty eyes keen for motion,paw set by paw, in half-pace, soundless.
In cool beds beside open windowssleepers stir, restive, readying to rise,birdsong sifting through the screens,filling the odd spaces, dream-corners,skylight still only false, morning yet undawnedwhile the day stalks, patient, inexorable,scanning the parting stems of half-past dreamsfor signs of motion, sighs of weakness.
The fresh snow discloses what dry nights conceal:the criss-crossing paths of paw prints—the rule-straight lines, the rabbits' threes-and-ones,the small indentations that straddle the steady furrowwhere the possum's tail parted the fluff,the fine lines of sparrows' feet, jays' larger ones,crows' larger still where they foraged at sunrise,poked and pried up small things, lifeless, stiff,from the snow that piled sometime past midnight. [End Page 525]
Now in the morning I read the evidence,heading for the barn to feed, to tip oats by the canfulinto battered rubber pans turned inside-outby the black mare who dips her waiting muzzle,rimed with hoarfrost, nose dripping,breath blown loud and grassy with the hay's last remnantsto encourage me, prod me to slice the twine,let the full bales spring loose, their dust risingabove the hay that smells still of sweet and summereven in this finger-numbing sunrise cold.
They work by night, these small creatures,beneath the blank moon or the shedding clouds,under the gaze of sharp-eyed owls that fly soundlesson square wings in the breathless darkto pluck and pierce them, tear, devour the unlucky,while the fortunate freeze in place, eyes wide,small respirations making tiny clouds, whiskers twitchingas the sharp yellow hooks of owls' beaks,the talons black as obsidian, do their bloody workwithout malice or rancor but in generous thanksgivingfor gifts received, sustenance found, enough for now,in winter's empty barn, its snow-filled hollowspocked and scored by countless tiny feet. [End Page 526]
Stephen C. Behrendt professes English at the University of Nebraska. His most recent collection of poems is History published by Mid-List Press.