The grain separator of coppered brass
Looked to his eyes like grandfather’s spittoon.
This is why he touched it, alone in the
Barn with the bands of late afternoon sun.
The funneled shape invited his fingers
Into the shadowed center where the corn,
Fresh from stalk, tumbled in its crudest state.
Imagine the magic a child could touch
Just by prowling one finger a hairsbreadth,
Another, and then another, into
The junction, gleaming if it could be seen,
Where the scalped husks and silk whispered one way
And the kernels plinked along the other.
The machinery prises his second
Knuckle apart, leaving pikes of bone and
Tendrils of cherry meat bloodied at the
Ends. Screams that will not stop until nightfall
Make the Nyesville prairie stock come running.
The brown barn rats scent the blood, and they wait.
Mordecai, what have you done to yourself?
The county has seen children crushed under
Towers of feed sacks after slicing the
Bottom one open with a sodbuster
Knife just to see what comes out. They have been
Drowned in troughs and sheep dippers, burned alive
In the haystacks while sneaking cigarettes,
Suffocated by landslipped manure piles,
Torn apart in turnip-cutting carts, and
Pulped beneath slate gate posts that had fallen.
In those ways, Mordecai, you are lucky.
Yet soon after he stumbles chasing a
Rabbit that the dog had flushed from the deep
Growth of thistle fringing the coops. Had the
First finger been there, been more than a source
Of spectral itching, maybe he catches
Himself the way a body expects, does
Not roll the wrist into a blade-edge crease,
Does not make the spared fingers crumple like
Fallen broadleaves under his father’s boots.
A cripple’s farm chores strengthen the gnarls, the
Blunted nerves – the affliction – but it’s not
Enough to swing a pick or to work an
Auger. Instead of dropping deep into
The three-foot coal shafts and pecking at the
Earth by the light of a carbide headlamp,
He ekes out company scrip by keeping
The books and collecting union dues as
He grows into his man’s face – broad and plain
Beneath curtained hair. The lips spill at the
Corners of his mouth, by force of habit
More than melancholy, they hope. Lord God
Forgive him for the sin that brought this on.
He plays mining-town baseball like all the
Other men. His throws from third base bend and
Too often drift wide, almost tracing the
Curve of his finger in some Lutheran
Mockery. Then one night in Coxville the
Pitcher shows up too drunk to take his turn.
Well, boys, says the manager, now what.
A depth charge, ignited by all those pent
Things, erupts deep under his guts. His mind
Falls into the wine-dark left behind, sinks,
Gasps, and then surfaces to reflect back
Himself – dragging his spikes across the mound
Like a whitetail during the rut. He takes
Time to settle his remnant fingers on
The horsehide with strange yet proper pressures –
A maimed physics that belonged nowhere else
Until this. The glove and hand lift once, part,
And lift again. The leg casts, and he falls
Headlong. The tip of the forefinger stump,
Veneered by that old doctor’s hot scalpel,
Will push it athwart. The hook of the runt
Finger digs the nail in, drives another
Axis through it. The crook of his middle
Finger, an accent mark of a language
Never taught in the one-room school of the
Coal town platted to maps not long before
He was born, will trip the ball as it leaves
His hand and make it tumble. The shoulder,
For years having done what his hand could not,
Summons up strengths deep in the marbles and
Sinews that will make his pitches whistle
Into the oniony summer stillness.
He hears the mitt pawp and opens his eyes.
I’ll pitch, he says, I’ll pitch tonight. He says
It again and again, louder each time,
Until they have no choice but to hear.
The grain separator of coppered brass