End of Days
The campfire casts shadows of those drawn near. It feels
intimate, safe, but anyone from a high enough vantage
can see it for miles – first the orange flames, then sparks
pinwheeling into darkness, and finally wavy plumes
of smoke scented with ash and pitch. A person could walk
right up on travelers sleeping, or find them as they stamp
their feet in the morning chill, blowing on steaming tin mugs
of coffee, their oatmeal bubbling in a pot. A person might
join them, share a meal, talk about the weather, or
rob them at gunpoint and leave them to fend for themselves
without clothing or shoes. The outcome depends on who’s
doing the looking; think how deer signal to one another
with white tails as they race through the woods, but draw
the eyes of hunters, still as bone, squinting through rifle scopes.
Hitching to Hiawassee, GA from the Appalachian Trail
Houdini’d into the jacked up back seat
of a two-door Pontiac, one backpack’s
across our knees and the other two
jam the trunk. These mountain boys
who picked us up have Highway to Hell
cranked almost as high as they are,
but we need the ride to town and we’re
lucky to have it, dark as it is. The road
is wet with wind-driven snow and
we skid and squeal through every curve.
The driver has a death wish for us all,
but his buddy is chatty, offers us reefer:
“moke a JAY!?” with no front teeth.
My hiking partners are clearly boys
and I reveal only a sexless oval of face
between my hat pulled low and layers
of scarf. It feels safer that way – no need
to remove my disguise though the heat
is blasting and smoke thickens on the ceiling
like a shadowy gathering of the Klan in a
clearing amongst the trees. The trees
are charging our headlights at every bend.
The A.T. has its dangers: bears, crazy armed
loners, frostbite, but this carnival ride
tops the list. I chant a mantra: hot shower,
eggs, and imagine unknotting myself
from our dark cage, wriggling free
of my army surplus coat, bursting
after tense minutes into the amazed
and relieved cheers of the townsfolk.
It was too tangled in landscape mesh to free itself,
flies already swarming its promising stillness.
I ran the half-mile home for scissors and back,
willing it to hang on, like a medic over the damaged
body of a child. While I cut the mesh, careful
not to nick its skin, the snake heaved up an entire
bird it did not have a chance to digest. The bird’s
panicked cheeping and thrashing wings in the mesh
must have lured the snake in. Perfect body the size
of my thumb, its feather tips the color of sky.
Freed now, the snake curves off into weeds and I
wonder if I reached it in time. Is it too weak to live
or did I save it to prey again? Rescuers don’t ask
I suppose – they can’t tend to the child but leave
the driver who hit him to gasp his last in a ditch.
The uniformed Marines who showed up on our doorstep the summer
I turned twelve did not come bearing bad news of my father stationed
overseas. Instead, they came to bear away the elegant Vietnamese doll
my father sent me. Buried beneath her traditional silk finery, somewhere
inside her hollow plastic chest may have been a bomb. At least, that was
the story: the Pentagon needed to x-ray and examine her. It didn’t matter
that the officers promised to return her in one piece, even promised
not to tear her sleek emerald tunic and white pants, I could barely loosen
my grip. All over our town in the 1960s little girls were holding tight
to the same kinds of dolls, bought on street corners in Saigon, shipped home
with letters, transistor radios, Polaroids. I did not want the soldiers
to take her from my hands, to undress her and investigate her heart.
Nancy Allen is a criminal defense attorney and yoga teacher/studio owner living in Lynchburg, VA. Her poems have been published in the Tar River Review, the Sow’s Ear Review, Gargoyle, JMWW, and the Piedmont Virginian.