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Under the Big Top


ISSUE:  Winter 2001

near Grand Island, Nebraska, July 23, 1913

I.Heat Lightning

Fields of flax and sweetcorn flash under a half-moon
climbing the trellised treeline. Distant clouds tremble
each time the horizon flares, and the mare’s hipbones

glisten as if sun-lit. She snorts, shakes her bridle,
but Ted’s mother tightens the reins, cooing what seems
almost a love-song over the throb of their wheels

against wagon ruts, grass swishing the axletree.
He shuts his eyes and listens: peepers, cicadas,
wind in the cottonwoods. When he rouses from sleep,

they’re nearing the fairgrounds. Kerosene bulbs, abuzz
with June bugs, swing from the tentpoles. A light drizzle
has begun to fall, and Ted watches the shadows of boys

sway toward the bigtop, lamps bobbing like thistles.
A nighthawk calls, faint as a distant train whistle.

II.Porch

L. C. lets the door slap, lifts the whistling kettle
from the stove with a dishtowel. Granary patched
with tinscrap, cobs ground and slopped for the cattle,

evening has crept in like the dull ache in his back.
He blows steam from his cup, watching out the window.
Soon his boys will come following the foot-path

over the ridge. Single-file and nodding like cows,
they will drop their tools, jog to the night-cooled river,
and shed their sweat-crusted clothes, strung from the willows,

till the moon is high overhead. The four others
jaundiced in their cribs, before they even had names.
Mostly what he remembers is the scent of cedar,

clawhammer, sixpenny nails, the chuck of the plane.
He remembers the rattling cart, digging their graves.

III.Field-work

Sunset. Knee-deep in corn. Wallace driving the spade.
Down the row, Lynn in silhouette squats to knock dirt
from the lacy roots of cocklebur and bindweed,

then stands, wiping his hands on the tail of his shirt,
its thin denim, touched with the deep rust of dusk
and clay. But all is bleached white by the time they work

the last groove, stooped under a half-moon, amid husks
rustling, dark trees rocking at the top of the ridge.
In the distance, the night-train kicks clouds of white dust

into the air, rumbles over the wood-frame bridge,
so the moon shivers on the face of the river.
Now, his spade still, the whistle sounds like a pigeon

roosted high in the rafters of the old houses; firs
rise like bedposts into a canopy of stars.

IV.Center Ring

Under the canopy—snapping like a tattered flag—
the wirewalker shoulders her balance. It wobbles,
sagged at each end, but her feet creep down the rope rigged

between the tallest poles. The tent-walls mottle
with lamplight and shadow, dumb-show of elephants,
tumbling clowns, spinning like sun through a milk-bottle.

Goldie steals a glimpse of the others. Eyes round
with fear, their stares are fixed on a woman, standing
arms wide on a sway-backed, sequin-studded stallion,

but then the horse stops, mid-air, its rider dangling
like the wirewalker between sky and earth: the hiss
and sizzle of the struck post, the thunderclap, screaming

and sawdust, people running for the flame-lit tracks
where caged animals howl at the edge of darkness.

V.The Platte River

Storm-gales howl in the darkness, whipping treetops side
to side. Rain streams from Bob’s hat brim. Huddled here
at the far edge of the woods, his unsteady steed

stamping the underbrush into black mud, he stares
across the acreage, where corn rows sink in the glut.
Last spring, he aimed the drafthorse like a rifle—ears

solid as a sight—at the pine grove across the Platte.
Without bit or blinders, he cut each furrow, straight
as new corduroy. Now hailstones beat green stalks flat.

Ditchwater swells and gushes over the floodgate.
He turns up the roadway to check for their carriage,
pushing against the wind until he finds a break

and stays his horse like a sentry atop the ridge.
The river climbs its banks, tearing planks from the bridge.

VI.Chapman Bridge

Loose planks bob and disappear downriver. Reins hitched
to the truss, Catherine inches out onto the deck.
The dark water gushes through knot-holes in the bridge,

surges over her boots, dashing her face and dress
with mud churned by the current. She pushes her foot
forward, feeling for gaps, shaking—she thinks—like legs

on a wire. Far-off, thunder cracks like splitting wood
and she sees the girl fall through fire, the burning tent,
hears the trapped elephant squawl like a wailing child.

Then, through the rain, she sees the bent brim of Bob’s hat.
He yells stay where you are then take hold of my arm.
When they clear the bend, the boys rush from the milkshed:

Wallace, stripping wet quilts, hoisting Ted in his arms,
while Lynn runs the team toward the dim light of the barn.

VII.Hayloft

Lynn leads the horses through the barn’s sliding door,
down the lamplit feedway to their stalls. His hair clings
to his forehead and his wet overalls sag, but he moors

them to their stanchions, brushes each down, then cleans
with a hoof-knife the hard clay clotted to their soles.
Wind rattles the bare rafters. On the roofs thin tin

rain hums like a snare. By now, they must be nestled
in dry quilts, warm in the glow of the stove. Their soft
hands must throb, cupping mugs of black-tea, but Lynn scales

the ladder into the dark reaches of the loft.
He crawls over damp bales and unbolts the hay-door.
Here, above thrashing pines and wind that just won’t stop,

he counts breaths between flare and crack, until the storm
moves on, flashing across fields of flax and sweetcorn.

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