Stephen’s Creek, Texas 1957
Ben Harris ate hawks with his jaw bones working like saw blades at the mill
where he got his hernia and earned the right to rest
from all work forever.
With teeth too poor to be false
grinding on the backs of birds never meant to be eaten
Ben Harris ate hawks with his hat on
that blew off the head of a rich man down at Double Lake in 1935.
It was a perfect fit.
How did you climb those light poles Ben
to set the hawk traps we boys shot away later with our guns?
How could you take a wounded hawk by the talons, cut off its wings
and lay them to dry beneath your pillow?
You could have had chickens by the hundreds gone wild in pine trees
where you couldn’t walk without getting shit at!
Ben took a bath two times a year in Stephens Creek with his long johns on.
He’d rub his chest with a bar of soap my Grandma made
out of hog lard and lye
in the black kettle in her side yard
beneath the tree she where she hung her chickens
to twist their heads off and throw them on the smoke house roof.
We had to climb a willow tree
to see how their beaks kept clucking and their eyes spun in circles
looking for the hand that no longer held them.
The spinning of their eyes was the spinning of planets
was a whirling of stars around the throne of heaven!
I see you now, Ben, picking up chicken heads in a tow sack
slinging the bag full of silent clucking over your shoulder
dumping the heads into a vat of skinned squirrels, their heads still on,
adding chunks of possum and armadillo meat,
eating all of it with the dumplings Mrs. Hillendager gave you
for drawing water from her well.
She was a Catholic and you pronounced her name, “Hilldigger”.
Ben lived with his brother Rob
who smoked a pipe with a foot long stem made from some kind of leg bone.
They slept in an 8x8x7 foot shack
with their chickens and their chicken eating dogs,
with their guinea hens and the lame squirrel they wouldn’t kill,
with a million seed ticks and the hoots of owls,
with pine sap still rising from the boards they borrowed from the mill one night
when the moon was chuckling in a sweet gum tree.
With the picture of their Mother hung on a nail
whose maiden name nobody knew,
with shotguns hung on antlers from bucks killed out of season,
with the smell of Vicks Vapor Rub and the smell of wood smoke,
the smell of liniment and the smell of turpentine for head lice,
and the smell of snuff they never used around Ma,
and cough syrup and rubbing alcohol,
and the smell of horse and cow and chicken shit,
and the smell of old, old men no one would marry.
But someone had married Ben,
one of the Blanks women before the war.
Ben worked at the sawmill and hunted possum at night to feed the sons
But she died of ear ache that got into her brain
and the boys grew up to despise him.
When they were old enough, they moved to Huntsville to be in the prison
one for stealing a man’s truck, the other one to guard him.
Later on they moved again, to Houston
to operate a liquor store and rise up into the middle class.
Ben, I remember you saying, “No, no Aunt Mary…”
while your hand traveled in an arc to take the nickel from my Grandma’s hand,
that nickel she gave you for bringing mail up from the store.
I remember your fingers trimmed by a saw blade
and the scar across your palm where a hawk got you!
You used to take a jackass by its back hooves and hold it till he couldn’t buck no more!
I remember the hawk feather in your hat
and the smell of you even pine-o-pine couldn’t kill.
Ma wouldn’t let us drink out of the same gourd dipper as you until she
I remember you in overalls with shoes like starved dogs.
You never had on any socks in winter.
I don’t want to tell how your boys put you in a home where you cried
and couldn’t remember your own name,
how they put you in a cardboard coffin without a suit on.
Then dozers came to scrape your shack away
and on that spot is a man made lake with trailer houses along its
Everything I see and hear and taste and smell is from a place carried away in a flood.
Clearcut, burned, buried in water, gone!
But I remember your eyes like my Grandma’s eyes
the color of milk left outside for dogs with the sky in it.