Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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At a camp on the Watauga River
near Sycamore Shoals,
the revival preacher’s railing
for crosses in the West
bores into Crescent’s father’s ear.

The frontier’s flirting terminus
girdles the man
like the marks
of a new township
across a stand of old growth.

He calls for a blessing
before they depart for Kentucky,
names the boys
arrows in his quiver
and promises them all a place
where men stand thin and lordly
on the velvet skin of the land.

The whole family is swallowed
like rotgut swirling
in the mouth
of the Wilderness Trail.

Each sweating mile
is a load of nails and coffee
to sell at the revivals,
calico bolts and rosewater jingling
in the saddlebags across the mule’s flanks
as the distances between settlements grow longer.

His mama’s quaking fear
seeps into the wagon.

Clutched woodcut illustrations
of Indian depredations
make her swaddle
her youngest child into the back
corner of the wagon
through the roughest passes.

A woman tallying love
for her children—last to leave her body
most dearly,
but no massacre cuts the wagon train
as she might have imagined.

Crescent slips the seam
easy as a swallow’s nest
knocked to earth.

He stretches his legs,
westering on the trail
and calls it in a whisper
Athwominie, the young down
of his tongue
nibbling away
at the Cherokee syllables.

By summer, they have traced the path
of all the major revivals
along the Kentucky River.

At Boonesborough,
Crescent escapes
from the merchant tent
to the horse lot.

Men pay him in swigs of whiskey
and sticky nubs of boiled candy
to hold the leads
of their fractious horses
prancing as the call-and-reply of the sinners
echoes out to them.

And what come ye out
into the wilderness to see?

Across the fields,
grown men prostrate themselves
in fits of religious fervor.
Prone across the wilted prairie grass,
they are so small from the boy’s vantage
like switched children hollering
their agony out
over the lilting grass tops.

Thy sins are all forgiven thee.

Crescent shatters
the hard confections
against his molars,
flicks a horsefly from his shoulder.  

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