by Steve Meador
Today, in the forest, I happened upon something that triggered a memory of an old event. I could not stop thinking about the tree house, about seven feet above the ground, cobbled together in a massive live oak. I climbed up and sat on the splintering wood and crooked construction. During the rest of my walk, the image of it flashed with other images of back around fifty years ago.
My mind is in constant time travel mode when I am in a forest, more so than when I am on a plateau or in a field, body of water or any other spot of nature. I suspect because I loved being in the woods as a kid, especially the southern forest with its musty oak and sharp pine aromas and the Spanish moss either draped like deadweight or dancing like campfire smoke. As a boy I inhaled the faint and sweet odors of decaying leaves and moist, dense undergrowth. All of those smells still refresh me. And the sounds! The soft songs of birds, mixed with the electrical buzzing of cicadas and the hush of an occasional breeze through brush and leaves. Nothing human to interrupt what seemed to me like being in a dream. It was the perfect being alone, without the burden of loneliness. There was too much to do, too many large pieces of bark or piles of leaves to search beneath, too many stones to turn, too many holes to poke a stick into. Too much to do to fill the time that loneliness could occupy otherwise. The only alert was when everything went silent and I was there in the middle of it all, as though deaf, remembering back to silent times when I worried about what could be happening in those dangerous missile crisis days, fearing a silent radiation death that would reach out to burn and melt me, from some blast far away. But, like in the 1960s, sounds always returned and troubles of the adult world were pushed from my list of concerns.
Mostly, the forest provided a sense of security beneath the span and power of its massive canopy, at times woven so thick that midday dulled like dusk. My family did not go to church, so I did not know the feeling of peace and silent joy that people who did go claimed to find inside their wood or brick buildings. I do, however, imagine that it was much the same way I felt in the forest. In a sense, I also had an oak pew, but I had a different choir, a different candle, a different lesson to listen to and learn. To this day, I still carry the same feeling of security and peace when I walk through woods similar to those of my youth. I often think about once again folding a couple tablespoons of peanut butter inside a small square of wax paper, so I can take it from my pocket and lick it off, when I get hungry during my exploration.
So, the tree house, that trickster, conjured up spring of 1967, a couple months before I turned thirteen and the day I started my transition from boy to man, not physically or chronologically but in psyche. My mother, a year and a half removed from divorce and after a string of men wandering into and out of our lives, had gotten remarried to Carl. I liked him and he, having no son, seemed to find a decent substitute in me. He was twenty years older than my mother, a tall, thin man of Swedish descent with white-blond hair and blue eyes. He was a civil engineer who, according to her, made over fifty thousand dollars a year, a windfall of fortune in times when the cupboard was bare, literally, for my brothers, sisters and me.
We were making a Saturday trip to Cedar Point, a large amusement park in Sandusky, OH. It may as well have been Disneyland or Europe or South America, since we had never been to anything like that before. Three or four miles into the trip, Carl pulled the Chrysler Imperial onto the shoulder and said, “Come up here. I’m going to let you drive a little bit.” My mother did not protest, so I settled into the driver’s seat, skootched it up so I could reach the pedals and listened as he gave me some basic information—gas and brake pedals, how to put the car in drive, stay to the right of the line in the center of the road and don’t get to close to the car or truck in front of us. I put my foot on the brake, pushed the D button (the Chrysler had pushbuttons on the dashboard instead of a shift handle on the steering column), looked behind us, moved my foot to the gas pedal and pulled onto the road. It was slow going, at first, 10 mph slow. “Give it a little more gas…..a little more…some more.” Before I knew it I was going 40 mph. It was a jerky ride, with all my quick corrections of the steering wheel. I had been told by another kid that drivers were supposed to line the center of the hood, or the hood ornament if there was one, with the line on the right side of the road. That was what I did, all the while wondering how a driver was to coordinate staying on the road and seeing what was up ahead. Carl noticed where my glances were directed and when I told him about my friend’s advice, he told me to just look ahead and let my eyes follow the center of my own driving lane, that my steering would follow my eyes. He was right. My lesson lasted maybe four miles and ended with him saying, “You did well. Really, really good.”
A little over a year later, Carl would be history, cuffed and stuffed into a police cruiser in front of our house. He forgot to mention he had another wife in Chicago. I would live with my mother and siblings for the last time over the next couple months, and in a little over a year more, I would add 100 mph to the speed of that day, as I ripped over the roads of northwest Ohio. That short drive installed in me not only the quest for speed, but the need to be more than a boy, the desire to put behind me the coming and going of men and the constant going of a childhood that traveled the highways of confusion, uncertainty and instability.
Steve Meador has three books of poetry published, the full length Throwing Percy from the Cherry Tree and two chapbooks, A Good Sharp Knife and Pack Your Bags. His work appears regularly in print or online journals, resulting in numerous nominations for awards. However, he has yet to see his name at or near the top of any list, so, he continues to sell homes, in the Tampa area, for a living.
by Dr. Emory D. Jones
Curling mists rising from sloughs in a land table flat,
only a few thickets where the water stands full of cottonmouths;
bull frogs and mosquitoes rest from night serenade
and sun climbs to mid-day heat.
Dilapidated frame store stands,
gray-brown on the outside against Orange Crush signs,
dark behind the screen doors that bang gently when you enter--
glass cases full of jawbreakers and case knives
squat behind humming red Coke boxes;
earth fragrance clings like a lover
around cooler of Blue Ribbon and Jax.
Folks troop to the fields frothed with white to the horizon--
Mississippi white gold mined with sweat on sticky afternoons--
waiting for the sun to kiss the River.
Guitar sings soul in roadside juke joints,
harmonica wails pain away--
blues ooze, cake walk out of doors--
strings sing under callused finger-tips of Son;
Muddy wails waters of tears
in a Rainey night in Greenville,
as eternal as the flow of the River to the Gulf.
Late afternoons can still find lazy streams lined with people
stretching poles over holes
tempting mud-cats with bloodbait and doughballs.
It’s the forever land undulating in black
beneath your feet that gives it soul,
flavors it with tears.
And the blue notes still rising from bottle neck slides
glide out into a night as rich as black earth
waiting for another sun.
Dr. Emory D. Jones is an English teacher who has taught in Cherokee Vocational High School in Cherokee, Alabama, for one year, Northeast Alabama State Junior College for four years, Snead State Junior College in Alabama for two years, and Northeast Mississippi Community College for thirty-five years. He joined the Mississippi Poetry Society, Inc. in 1981 and has served as President of this society. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by this society in 2015. He won Poet of the Year in the Mississippi Poetry Society in 2002 and again in 2016. He has over two hundred and thirty-five publishing credits.
by June Saraceno
The Sample family graveyard was a favorite haunt. From the woods behind their barn, if I followed the field drainage ditch that Dare and me called the creek up to the blacktop, it was just across the road. Because of the trees, I could walk right over to the graveyard without being seen from any house nearby, even when I was crossing the road. There were three magnolias inside the wrought iron fence, one as tall as a skyscraper, with limbs low enough that it was easy to climb. Together, the three trees kept the little patch of graves shaded and cool. Some graves were sunken in a little, some markers just simple wooden crosses so deteriorated that I didn’t dare sneeze near them. I was careful to walk around the graves, not over them, but it was so unkempt it was hard to tell sometimes whether a patch was a grave or not.
There was one grave that I went to more than the others, even more than the mother and baby ones that always drew me. It was the Beloved Angel tombstone of Beverly Ann Sample who had died in the 1800s. On top it said “Beloved Angel on the Wings of Time” written in fancy cursive. Below that was “Beverly Ann Sample 1880-1890”and under that was “Our beloved angel, carried on the swift wings of time, home to God’s arms.” It was practically a book compared to most headstones.
It struck me on one particular day that Beverly and I were the same age – ten years old. It started me wondering what would it be like to be ten in 1890. And then to die. I pictured her with pigtails, an old timey dress like the drawings in Little Women in the bookcase at home. Under the dappled light of that big magnolia I sat there and pondered her life. Were there tractors or would she have been in the field with her whole family plowing and reaping? I wished I knew the details of her story. What could kill a ten year old? As full of words as the tombstone was there was no clue to how she died. Some of the markers told a plain story. The baby graves, usually just a small stone lying flat in the ground giving the dates, mostly in months, were clear. They died getting born or soon after. One was a mother and baby side by side. The baby, not even with a name or life span dates, just “and daughter,” told a clear tale. The mother died having that baby and nobody even bothered to give her a name, and no graveyard sweetness either, no “beloved” or anything. Seemed liked the dad was mad at the baby when he buried them.
Babies were one thing, but a ten-year-old girl was entirely different. Somebody that old could pretty much take care of herself. So what had happened? Had she got one of them diseases that kids now get vaccinated for? Had she got mangled up in some farm machinery? Awful things like that happened to farm kids a lot. I didn’t know a single farmer that didn’t have something missing, if only a half of a finger. There was that farmer at church who had a leg missing below the knee and I’d heard he had two fake legs, one for everyday use and the other the “dress up” leg that he wore to church. I’d stared at the real shoe on his wooden foot in church more than once.
“Beverly Ann Sample,” I gave myself goose bumps addressing the dead girl. “What happened to you?”
It felt funny to be talking out loud in the graveyard. I felt sorry for Beverly Ann who had been dead for about 100 years. Then the ground tilted a little. Not quite 100 years. I never did like arithmetic. I tried to do it in my head but couldn’t. I scratched some figures above my ashy kneecap. She died in 1890, and it was 1965 now. Minus the 1890 from 1965. That wasn’t 100; it was 75 years ago. I did it twice to make sure I had carried the numbers right. She would have been 85 if she had lived. I know for a fact that some of the ladies in my church are that old. I felt a funny spinning feeling. I had come here and looked at this grave so many times and thought about the dead girl from another century. She might have made it from that century to this one if only she hadn’t died at ten. It was unsettling how the distance between us seemed to shrink uncomfortably. The girl in pigtails that I sort of knew could be a white haired old woman in a patterned dress with pictures of grandbabies in her pocketbook. I had read the tombstones with the 1800 dates as if they were part of the long ago, the unknowable world. That far away time just became unexpectedly connected to the now because there were still people who had been in both.
Then another crazy thought struck me. If I don’t die, if I live to be 85 years old, I might be part of a different world. I used my leg again to add 1965 + 75 but it wasn’t coming out right. 2040 wasn’t a real year. I did it over and over and it kept coming out 2040. It would be a year. The thought of a year starting with 20 instead of 19 seemed crazy, like The Jetson’s or Lost in Space, maybe fun but definitely not real. But then every single day of my life up until today Beverly Ann Sample was someone who could have never have existed in my world because she was from another century. It was hard to get a handle on it. Beverly could be some old woman in church. I might live into a time past the 1900s, another century, as foreign and strange as a past century has always been.
My temple was throbbing a little with an idea that couldn’t quite take shape. It was about time. It was the way that Beverly had connected the far away to the now and the way the now was going to move forward, carrying me with it whether I wanted it to go or not, closer to some hazy place that I couldn’t even picture. Just like I didn’t know whether Beverly took baths in a real bathtub or in some wash tub with hot water poured in from off the kitchen stove, I couldn’t see what was ahead of me and for the first time ever I fretted about that. Time was like the Holy Spirit. You couldn’t see it but it moved in and around, invisible as air but still operating on things. I had only thought about it in practical ways before: time for dinner, close to Christmas, time for school to let out. But there was this whole other feature that couldn’t be seen and yet it was the real truth of time. It was connecting things like links in a chain and it went backwards and forwards as far as the mind could see. It stretched at some point into eternity where people were in heaven or hell.
That made me think of Beverly again. She was out of this time that had numbers marking centuries and into eternity. She was either in heaven or hell. I could feel the dread welling in me. If she had lived long enough she would undoubtedly be saved. Old people are always saved. But she was ten. I knew I wasn’t a good Christian and I wasn’t really sure of my spot in heaven but I always figured on having some time before that was critical. Now, I hoped fiercely that Beverly had been saved before she died. I prayed before I thought about it “God, please let Beverly have been saved.” But could it even work like that? Could God change something if it had already happened? She’d been dead a long time.
Then I was conscious of God looking at me and that made me feel a little cautious. Like maybe I should get out of the graveyard and go home. It didn’t seem wrong to keep figuring out how time worked, though, and that occupied my thoughts back across the road and through the woods on the way home. It was invisible but real, like the Holy Ghost it made things happen. Somehow the 1800s weren’t over because people who lived then lived now. And even though the 2000s seemed unbelievable, I could live in such a future time, unless the Rapture happened first, and that seemed a lot more likely.
I took a long looping path back towards the house. I could see Mother in the kitchen and me coming in to make a baloney sandwich. I could see that time had already changed me even though I looked like the same Willa Mae that left the house only a few hours ago. Mother wouldn’t notice, her shoulders curved over the sink in one of the endless kitchen chores. I could see this as if it were happening. And just barely, I could see a completely different me, a stranger, in a far off time. I knew that this would be how it was, the invisible world always working on the visible one. Inside we would be made up of different times but still every second moved us closer to the mystery ahead.
June Sylvester Saraceno is the author of two poetry collections, Of Dirt and Tar, and Altars of Ordinary Light, as well as a chapbook of prose poems, Mean Girl Trips. Her work has appeared in various journals including Poetry Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature, and Tar River Poetry. She is English program chair at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe, as well as MFA faculty and founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. For more information visit www.junesaraceno.com
Art by Clinton Van Inman
Poem by Amber Weyland
You came into sight as I drove across the Mississippi River. Dark and mysterious, I’d followed your voice over 858 miles of open road. Your call, like a siren’s song in the night, beckoned me closer. They warned me about your dark magic. They warned me about your voodoo and the dark spirits that danced between your thighs. They told me to cling to my non-beliefs, to arm myself with the knowledge that your magic wasn’t real. It was all illusion, a trick of the light and the bourbon and the heat.
But no one warned me about your softer side. While I was looking for ghosts, you slipped a love potion in my drink. You came to me that first night with eyes as wild and as dark as your hair. When you kissed me, you tasted like danger but you spoke of adventure. Your beads jingled when you danced for me, and I sat in reverence as you lit spirit candles and read my future in your cards.
All roads, you said, lead you back to me.
I left you on a Saturday. I watched you disappear beyond the waters as I drove away. Your wild hair, your inviting hips, your long, dark fingers begged me to return. You played your best saxophone solo and called down soft rains to cool the boiling streets. You filled the air with the scent of po’ boys and gumbo—and all the while, you called my name across the river, pleading with me to turn my car around. You promised me that I’d never wake up in a fog of discontent if I stayed, promised I’d never be bored again. You asked me to remember the way we’d danced in the street and the way I’d laughed as you kissed powdered sugar off my lips in Café du Monde.
Remember, I whispered, as if I could forget a single moment with you.
I pushed the pedal to the floor. On the other side of the bridge, I rolled down the window and yelled back the promises I’d made you the last night we’d danced beneath the street lights--I will come back to you. I will come back, and I will never leave.
Amber Weyland teaches high school English in Roanoke, Virginia. She is an MFA candidate in Writing at Lindenwood University, and she holds both a Master’s and a Bachelor’s in English. Aside from a list of college publications, she has a poem about post-Katrina New Orleans as depicted through graffiti set to be published in Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal in April 2016. She is currently in the midst of moving to New Orleans, Louisiana where she plans to continue writing and teaching English.
Clinton Van Inman grew up in North Carolina, graduated from San Diego State University in 1977, taught in South Carolina and is currently a high school teacher in Tampa Bay where he lives in Sun City Center, Florida with his wife, Elba.
Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.
Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.