By KATIE LEHMAN.
BY THE PIER, AN ISLAND
THE turtles’ forsythia-stroked necks: a stout inch—gnarled
bark, or dried fig. Lake dross onshore reminiscent
of an ocean, this far inland. Their hardscrape shells,
a carapace, olive with pimiento-skirted lip, a pie’s pinched
edge. Against the puddied plastron, our thumb and index grip,
claw-caught skin, a needle’s poke, a stipple pinch;
sunstruck arms outstretched with a cataract splash,
they scurried in. What did we seem to them? Part landscape part
interior, all summer underfoot from underwater mirrors
of ferned chlorophyll, mantis-green fronds propped in tea water—
our wrists wafting in conversation, a conductor’s plied semaphore
against the aluminum boat’s agitated rope, its sidelong slip.
MY son at seven is afraid of water, the slightest drop
on his arm. I tell him that he was born from water,
smallest amniote, floating weightless, safe within
a fluid-filled globe, gravid in the illuminated dark, his lungs
yet to form, like the primeval fish he once was. But he is
more specific: It was Tiktaalik, the earliest known land
vertebrate in the Carboniferous. Lobe-finned, a pioneer
amphibian with limbs. I suggest he is the fishlike
ostracoderm with intricate armored skin. But the classification
is outdated, the metaphor has holes, and he swims. It is
the differentiation, that spate of rain, uncommitted
to pools, that startles and darts then makes wet. “Ouch,”
he says from welts cropping up like a pox on his sleeve.
He’s become afraid of fiction. Of dramatic tension, or
an image on a classmate’s page. Stick to the scientific,
the facts—all birds descend from dinosaurs, not the
bird-hipped Ornithischians (nonavian, he reminds me)
but the lizard-hipped Saurischians, in an evolutionary twist
of plot. Not the Sauropods but the Theropods. Long before
birds emerged in their brightly colored cacophony
Archaeopteryx—Old Wing—appeared in its primitive
plumage. I look up Theropod: Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Tyrant Lizard King. I think: bully. What mammal
hid among the late Cretacean forest? And then: What fear
followed him here on this Quaternary evening, under
these trees, below this sky? What predator or prey? Like him
I grasp for definitions and the labels they name: Fixation on
particular subjects; problems with processing physical sensations.
But something primordial halts my breath—We are individuals
after all. What tricks the brain plays, what convergences
of light bore at the truth of things. I glance from my text—
He runs among the rasping of wings in the garden.
DESPITE the teacher’s repeated promptings
he refuses to write in lower case but instead
forms rigid Roman capitals, like Virgil’s,
scored from a thumb-grasped pencil grip.
His chisel’s a quill, his quill a graphite tip. At
night he is thankful, he says, for opposable
thumbs. Opposable, he puts his foot down.
He simply won’t heel to a medieval monk’s
hasty minuscules worn down in the dim
Scriptorium. His Ticonderoga jibes grand
majuscules like Aeneas’s Sicilian-bound
ships. His vessel’s a fleet, his fleet adrift.
Their bows rise and fall across the dashed
lines of his composition book. It is Palinurus
sleeping at a paper helm. His pitch pine tar,
a rudderless hull. He brushes eraser dust like
calloused skin from a pumice stone. Yet still he
fastens his bent gaze from Carthage toward
Lavinium. Down the page his lead-gray As
spire out like sails from a ruled horizon.
IN her saddle she will carry him
when I cannot. Then she will carry him,
beast of his burden, her wooden hooves rent
from the paddock’s rigid terrain, under his pointed
elbows, her quiescent dust. Summer afternoons, they drift—
brown skiff on green pastures. Her wither crest and backbone’s
pitch. Her neck’s an answered question his helmet tilts upon.
Though they stand they gallop through a field of purple clover.
They gallop far circles, strewn ellipses, mere thread, the black leather
discus on which he rides, the sky’s pupil absorbing light and trees and
clouds and at a pinpoint, a mother, squinting just out of their periphery.
Katie Lehman received an MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) from the University of Notre Dame in 1999, studying under John Matthias and Sonia Gernes. While at Notre Dame, she was the recipient of the 1998 Billy Maich Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the editor of Regrounding a Pilgrimage by John Matthias and John Peck (Dos Madres Press, 2018), and her poems have appeared in Great River Review, Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, and Notre Dame Review.