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Back Steps


ISSUE:  Autumn 1984

If she asks you, face averted,
to sweep up a fieldmouse carcass
by the back steps, you can just
take the kitchen broom and dustpan
and roll the thing in with a stroke,
chatting as you pry off the garbage can lid;
but then the chance may not come again.

So instead
you notice how distressed her call is
and rouse to whatever it is
that’s broken summer’s drowsy rhythm.
From the kindling pile you choose
two small sticks to save the broom,
and head where she pointed
before she slipped inside.

There, against the concrete steps:
it seems to be moving—barely crawling
or shivering in place; but it’s only
a blanket of ants, hurrying in the given time.
Already they’ve removed the fur
that lies around in a halo of fluff.
A surprising pink skin, like a newborn’s,
sags over the slight frame,
so much frailer than you’d imagined.

The ants are everywhere, of course,
coming and going at all the openings;
still, you pluck up the tiny body
between kindling sticks, and lift it
above the frantic workers.
Its underside has been scoured,
opening a rib cage delicate as a fish’s
and as clean. The expected stench
is not there—only the flat sweetness
of a neighbor’s cut grass, his mower
throbbing beyond the fence.

Carefully
you carry it to the garden’s edge,
lay it down and dig like a child,
gouging a hole with both sticks,
then roll the floppy bundle in
and scrape soil over it. By the time
you reach the back steps, they’re clean,
the ants are gone, and the shower’s running
too hard to tell her anything.

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