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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Frontier Arithmetic

During supper,
as his father begs the Lord’s forgiveness
for his failure as an earth tiller,

Crescent’s stubby finger
tallies of its own accord—
sums on the slab
of his kneecap.

The grandfather raves over his bowl
demanding a lost medal from
the Chickamauga Wars.

The boy spins
frontier arithmetic in his mind:
day’s remaining
stone fruit small and miserly
left to rot into the ground,
bites of gristle on the rough slate of his plate,
bolts of calico, twists of cornmeal,
envelopes of Rio coffee
so fine they are stored
in the corners of his mama’s trousseau.

An uncle rides into the farm.
His purpose is the trickster’s salvation—
two years out from a long hunt,
hair wild and long.
His woman trails him on a
bold sorrel pinto.

They propose
to ride together
into the camp revival season,
sell dry goods,
then set up shop on the frontier.

The next morning,
the uncle’s woman
allows Crescent to untether the pinto.

He traces the bright orange patches
against the white
across the horse’s flank,
and draws a smile from the woman
with his whispered word, Auntie.

Later, his grandfather’s pronged grip
on his elbow as he hauls the boy onto
the back of the woman’s saddle roll.
Don’t call that woman anything.
She’s no kin to you.

Crescent drums each finger
and his two slim thumbs
along the horse’s haunch,
ten soft thuds
for the last words
he ever hears
from the man.

On the trail
the woman teaches
him phrases in Cherokee
for the quality of the earth
near the river’s fork,
and the misting horizon line
of stacked mountains
rippling into the distance.

She passes him a Shawnee cake
wrapped around a knob of bacon grease
then bids him swallow it
and the words quickly
before any of the party
looks back.

A week later
she peels away
along a stream bank
into the funnel of the Cumberland Gap.

Crescent is on foot
for the remainder
watching the dull flank
of his brother’s dun mare
and balancing a bolt
of nut-brown homespun
across the miles of water and moss.  

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