They felt at ease within the speechless world
Of beasts, in long hours spent alone in fields
Or in November blinds where they became
Like stones with roving eyes and rifles in
Their laps. Even working side by side
They didn’t mind a silent stretch of time.
Much to the consternation of their wives
They’d say the grace then eat without a word,
Sit staring at a winter fire all night.
But sometimes on the steps outside of church
Or gathered round a gambreled buck, when they
Stared out across the growing rows or passed
The water jug beneath a pasture tree,
When children chirped around their knees, the words
Would come to weave again the history
That lay across their lives and land, the things
They’d seen or done or heard from those before,
Like dried out beds that unexpected rains
Fill up again, renewed geography.
A man who posts his ground should get his wish.
I don’t want hunters tramping through my woods,
And sometimes I could stand the hermit’s life
Myself. I understand the signs and gates,
But what about those dummies that he strung?
That’s taking things too far, it seems to me.
The lane back to his place was lined with them—
The rubber masks they sell at Halloween
On scarecrow bodies lashed in trees. There was
A grinning devil with its wings spread out,
A clown with bloody teeth, a werewolf creeping
Out a limb, a vampire upside down.
It was a hunting camp before, and he
Had pried the antlers off the shed and fastened
Them to masks. What do you make of that?
I know one thing—
Dumb kids were bound to take it as a dare.
It took the mom a couple days to call.
She didn’t love admitting that her sons
Trespassed to throw some corn up on his roof.
But he had shot a couple rounds off in
The dark and she was scared he’d seen their car,
Might track them down to carry on his quarrel.
She’d seen him once in town and said his eyes
Looked plenty murderous enough to her.
So I drove over there to have a talk
With him. The gate was closed and padlocked shut.
I hollered but he didn’t answer me.
Halfway up the lane on foot, those faces
Leering down at me, my neck hair was on end.
He’d turned the yard into a garden patch
But it had gone to weeds. I had to wade
Through them to reach the porch. At first I thought
It was another dummy sprawled across
The rail, but then I saw the flies. His face
Had curdled up like week-old milk gone blue,
And they were swarming on his eyes and tongue,
Just flitting in and out between his lips.
A gun was on the floor, the action open.
Christ almighty. What a sight to see.
There never was a mask that looked like that.
Steven Knepper teaches literature at Virginia Military Institute. His poems have appeared in journals such as Pembroke Magazine, The James Dickey Review, SLANT, Third Wednesday, The American Journal of Poetry, Floyd County Moonshine, and Rotary Dial.