Even after all the scrubbing, the scent of wood stayed ripe around my hands, the handle of a crooked ax, hot and splintered as I’d tightly grip the belly, hew log after log after log after log; no gloves or goggles, no time to think about the way friction reshaped my fingerprints, how easy wood split from wood if I didn’t question my quota, if I believed anger could be sanctioned into cathartic action, too focused not to know what I was actually doing, this backyard chore my father put me to work on every weekend. He’d say that we all needed to learn ‘the lesson,’ discipline before duty, duty before knowing what it meant to work in this world for a living. And I’d sometimes think these had to be bad hallucinations, since my father never spoke in metaphors, never lectured beyond simple body language, a grunt as he’d hand me the ax, and I went to work wedging the blade through bark, through rings, through hours of the hickory haft melting into my palms; my daydreams fueled by heat, as I’d become a miner, firefighter, a lumberjack who chiseled the wood into a different type of meaning, giving me a reason to construct a cabin inside my head, chop and store all these afternoons inside of it, and wait for my skin to shed the scent of log I’d toss into a pile like bones, a feeling I could almost claim as guilt, not knowing my father saw this work as rite, every back bent back and swing swung down as a seesaw for balance he’d imagine I’d find, as I imagined myself naked inside this cabin, stripped of purpose and ready to harvest my blisters deep inside these woods.
The moon swings down from its morning socket, and a horde of flies swarm the eyes of the calf garroted between the barbed-wire fence, her squeals sharper than the echoes from her birth, as she now struggles to untangle herself from this womb of a mess; legs and neck rusted by the teeth digging further through her flesh, as I dig my fingers through her sticky hair, pull her spine closer to my chest. She’s trembling as if this were winter, and I imagine snow quilted on our heads, flakes draped above the yawning hills, soft and thin, and more a reason to believe I can find innocence in this event, that she won’t remember the severity of her wounds, and I’ll tread back home lending my father a quiet hand. But the wire’s webbed around her skin like fate, and she’s slowing down the pace on her kicks and jumps, as I’m carving stigmata on my humid palms, aware God is far from this horizontal crucifixion, that the sacrifice here isn’t meant to be prophetic, but practical, a chance to resurrect her growing silence into a silence of afternoon grazing, so she can linger the way cows have perfected the act of lingering, and I can watch this from a distance, convinced even the bruised sky will heal itself.
Belly blacker than asphalt, than fresh tire marks and the silhouette of mesquite against a filmstrip sky, I squat down as if to pay tribute, an amateur in animal deaths, in stray cats I feed dinner-scraps against my mother’s will. These are the driveway scavengers, solicitors of sympathy rubbing against my leg, and this one is the dead one that veered off its map, tested traffic, briefly became brave. I study the lump of feral bone and flesh, how the miscellany of its stomach spreads out like scree, red, rotten, rumpled like morning bed sheets, and there is a sense that if I believe in fate, this is the only end the cat could have endured, that my being here is a kind of funeral, and my silence a roadside elegy for all the lives this stretch of road has ever killed. I feel I should toss it back in the yard, prepare a more human ritual, but my hands are too young to dig a proper burial, work through dusk and watch the suburban moon rise into our country air, as it becomes a witness to the after-act of death again, and I scrape my shovel beneath its head instead, dump it in a nearby bush, turn back home with the hum of 281 singing in my ears.
Esteban Rodriguez holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas Pan-American, and works as an elementary reading and writing tutor in the Rio Grande Valley, promoting both English and Spanish literacy. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Huizache, The Country Dog Review, Thin Air, basalt, and Ghost Town. He lives in Weslaco, Texas.