• Marked, and: The Hawk, and: The Hunters, and: Nest, and: Storybook, and: Splinter, and: Mountain Child

Marked

They are alone, the woman and the girl child. The man has gone over the mountain

to work for a year, maybe longer, and the sunlight here is a little bitter, the color of turmeric,

the same gold as the leaves floating down. The girl has an eye like a spyglass for birds.

She must be marked, the woman thinks. Wherever she walks, the shadow of a hawk

falls on her, the way a light trains on something. In this thick forest, light can’t touch

every leaf, but the woman watches wind touch all of them. If they weren’t paper-

thin, this rustling would be a hammering like hooves on hard ground. The man will return,

but what a strange homecoming to the world belonging to the woman and child. They cut

its intricate shapes from nothing, like silhouettes from paper. They have a rhythm. Mornings

to the creek on horseback, ocher leaves falling through ocher air nearly indistinguishable. [End Page 78]

Evenings, at the fire, telling stories the man won’t know. Maybe there is something about

his hands, rough as bark, the girl will remember. But if she’s grown wild in this wilderness,

who could blame her. Once small enough to fit inside the hawk’s fallen shadow,

now she can almost outrun it, only the dark blade of a wingtip scissoring across her face. [End Page 79]

The Hawk

The hawk has never seen a girl child. This new creature—smaller than a fawn,

song unlike a bird’s—hushes the air with her gold hair. The clearing seems

an invitation to light her, but the hawk has no light to shine, only shadow.

He hovers, training his own dark double on the girl. They are tethered, an invisible

string between them. She rarely speaks but sings. The hawk has never seen notes

shaped like hers, each one an empty locket with space inside it, but for what?

This is not for birds to understand. The hawk loves the girl child best

in the open, only sunlight strumming the tether between them, her notes

rising easily to him the way an echo homes to the voice that calls it. [End Page 80]

The Hunters

The hunters are just passing through. The three men stop to rest,

to dip their ladles in the cold creek, and there are the woman

and the girl child. The girl wears the shadow of a hawk, feathers

like a fine-printed fabric on her skin. The men don’t know what to make

of the bird, how it hovers above her as if held aloft by an undercurrent.

On the hillside, the lit tents glow like lanterns. The hunters wonder

if this place is real, if they will find their way back here and see nothing

but trees—no girl, no hawk, no woman, no metallic cold rusting

their tongues, no spell of these woods to be broken. But tonight the men

are warm, fed, their coarse hair cut, their horses heaped with furs,

and the woman wears firelight on her face, the paper lace of the dark

flickering—a reminder of the soft, bewitching world inside the world. [End Page 81]

Nest

For nesting, the hawk gathers the girl’s long hair—glinting, caught in a low branch,

snagged on a clothesline. Soon he’ll look for her gold curls, almost transparent

in the light, and see strands the color of bark, dull and dark and straight. Sycamores

shed their roughest skin to reveal the color of milk. Is the girl like this,

becoming again and again what she was when the hawk first spied her—young,

shining like a broken bit of mirror on the ground? The hawk doesn’t know

this is a human story, the girl’s story he is only a small part of. High in a pine

is a soft, blond nest of baby hair. [End Page 82]

Storybook

Elsewhere in this world there is water you cannot see beyond, the hunters say,

and seabirds. The men say the ocean is not so far from here, and the more

they say it, the more the girl smells salt on the piney air. Elsewhere in this world

is water you cannot cross on horseback or raft, but this place is all tinder

and leaves, all paper like a book cracked open on its spine, and these mountains,

this intricate forest, cut from its pages. The girl wonders if this is what the crows

have been doing with their sharp cries: cutting leaf shapes from paper, cutting

their own shadows to throw down, cutting the hawk’s so it can follow her.

She wonders if when a baby is born on this mountain, a caw cuts the child’s

shape from flesh, too. The girl could be elsewhere in this world, but here

she has a long, dark girl to lie down beside. [End Page 83]

Splinter

The man returns, beard thick and rough as splintered wood, and finds what he feared:

the woman happy, the blond baby he left now a dark-haired girl.

He knows hunters passed through; the girl has a fox fur the color of rust.

The woman must have been lonely. She must have worn her hair—the color

of a copper kettle—with one loose tendril at the nape of her neck. The firelight

must have come alive on her skin. Now she comes in alone from the pasture

at night, raised lantern swaying. She lies a long time with the child, whisper-singing

some lullaby he’s never heard into her hair. This side of the mountain isn’t home

anymore. In the morning, as the man splits logs for the fire, a long splinter stitches

itself into the tender meat of his palm. He dips his hand into the cold creek

and watches the water cloud with blood, then run clear, as if he had never been there. [End Page 84]

Mountain Child

When the girl leaves the mountain, she is no longer a child,

but she has not outgrown the hawk. She wears its shadow on her shoulder,

an epaulet. It bears the weight

of allegory. When the girl leaves the mountain, it’s autumn,

so many yellow leaves on the gingko, clusters of butterflies seem to cling

to each branch. Each time the wind blows, a few take wing.

When the girl leaves, the mountain flickers with shadows. What else

can left-behind birds offer but their own shapes cut

from the papery dark. They call, Please,girl child, mountain child. The ground

beneath her feet is a trick of gold wings—at any moment a few

might flutter, then rise all at once. [End Page 85]

Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith is the author of Lamp of the Body, Nesting Dolls, and The List of Dangers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and The Iowa Review.

Additional Information

ISSN
2168-5541
Print ISSN
0038-4534
Pages
78-79
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-01
Open Access
No
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