The sound of your boots as they
Crunch against the frozen earth
Is the only sound you hear;
That and the wind in the remains
Of last summer's corn
And your breathing
As you walk further and further
From the warm farmhouse that
You spent so much of your
Childhood in,
Returning from the land of
Summer for just these brief
Few days, a homecoming
That you've been anticipating
For a long, long time.
After all, these are the people
You set out to defend, or
Maybe a lot of people like
Them – ordinary, and innocent
Of what you've seen since
You left the safety of
Your hometown where you
Knew everybody
And everybody knew you.
You shift the weight of the
20-gauge Ithaca in your gloved
Hands – this shotgun was your
Dad's -he left it to you
After the hay baler ran over
Him one summer, leaving you
To look after your mother
And sister while uncle Bill
Took over the farm.
It's a good gun, not too heavy,
Not too light. Just right for
What you have in mind today,
This afternoon, where the sun
Is a flat white disc near the
Late autumn horizon
In a sky the color of
Weathered siding-
Like on the machine shop a quarter mile
Behind you, not too far from
The back door of your mother's
Kitchen, where Thanksgiving
Dinner is being prepared
As you walk across the fields
That your father and his father
Before him, once worked.
But you're not a farmer,
Though you can handle a tractor
With the best of them, and you
Can heave a calf over the fence
At weaning time. Something
Told you long ago that this
Wasn't the road you'd be taking,
So what if today, you're in
Your old familiar shitkicker
Boots, coveralls and a
Feed cap with your old high
School mascot embroidered on it
With the notch in the bill where
You got it caught on a barbed
Wire fence the week before you
Left for basic training
A long, long time ago?
You release the safety on the
Ithaca, your dad's old
Shotgun, easily stepping over
A furrow with a thin film of
Ice on it as the wind blows
Frigid over the Iowa horizon,
It's been a long journey;
You've seen a lot along
The way, most you can't tell your
Mother or your sister about –
You swore a lot of oaths not to,
Oaths that protect them,
These ordinary people, from what
You've seen and done so that they
Don't have to – which is what
Being a soldier is all about, right?
You do the dirty work so that
People like your little sister and her
Three kids, your nieces and nephews
Can stay clean.
Your breath frosts on the metal
Of the dull blue gun barrel.
It's nothing like what you left
Locked up in the armory
Back in southern California.
Or at least that's as much
As you can tell the home folks.
This afternoon, you have the feeling
That the shotgun you cradle in your
Big farmer's hands is cleaner,
More honest, than the weapon you
Patrol with, night after night.
Funny, you never would have thought
Such thoughts until you met her and
Her oddball friends.
That's another thing, why does
Your mother says you've changed?
You haven't. You're still the same
Guy who went to basic training
Four years ago. But you
Catch her looking at you with a
Frown on her face. Nothing big,
Just something subtle, small.
And your sister, as she held your
Newest niece on her lap this
Morning at church, she looked
At you with that same frown and
Then looked away while saying,
"I don't know what's happened
To you big brother, but I'm going
To pray for you because
You've changed somehow."
Well, of course, you've changed!
You've left the farm, you've seen
Things, things you can't tell them
About, things that would upset them-
Because not only would you be breaking
Solemn promises, but they couldn't
Handle the truth – it would pull the
Rug out from under them, destroying the
Safe little world you went out into
The bigger, more dangerous world
In order to protect.
And your dogs, the two big half-lab mutts
That have always been your best friends
Before you were stationed in California,
They greeted you joyfully every time
You managed to come home on furlough.
This time they slink around you, noses working
Snarling at you as if you were a stranger
Trespassing on your family's land.
They too, tell you that there's something
Different about you, but hey, if a man's
Dogs don't recognize him
After he's been away, then what of it?
You see a stirring in the fallen corn stalks
Left behind by your uncle's harvester and
You slow down as you
Raise your father's shotgun, sighting down
The dark blued steel.
This is prey you can brag about.
It's part of what you swore to protect –
It belongs here. It was made for your
Kind, it is here for you to harvest
On this long, cold day in Iowa
Among the rustling remains
Of last summer's corn.
So why does everything feel wrong?
Those strange little wounds you find
On your body, around your heart,
Have healed up and have stopped appearing
In the morning after you've slept
Too hard, the strange half-memories
Of someone tampering with you
As you lay there looking up at the lights,
Those are fading.
Is this why your mother and your
Sister now look at you sideways?
Do they see those wounds too?
There's a whirr in front of you,
As a rooster pheasant rockets straight
Up into the grey November sky
Silhouetted like a crucifix,
Wings stock still in the split
Second it takes you to get him
In your sights.
You pull the
Trigger
And the shot
Echoes from the
Horizon all
Around you
And your prey
Falls
To
The
Frozen
Earth,
Nothing more than a dead bird
With gaudy feathers,
Still warm, his smoking
Blood spattered
Where he landed as you
Put the safety back on
The Ithaca, kneel,
And gather him up
To put in your game bag
All thoughts of what might
Be the truth, of what might
Be happening to you, forgotten
As the first snow of winter
Begins to dust the empty
Cornfields that circle
You on all sides.