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1. Approaching Prayer

In a sudden breeze the poet watched three dandelion spores break their tethers. They drifted out for a moment like trivial monoliths. He was sick and had to die somewhere, so he had chosen a place that might be sick with poetry. But he held back the moment of arrival, watching these dying small things. The air cold and thin as the edge of a butter knife, too toothless to carry the spores over the remnants of black rainwater, so they fell and drank there. The poet had come much farther, four hours down the beige highways into the dim flat country, away from his mountains, into weary forest, to Furlough House.

This was how he began things, by plucking and seeking, pulling the obvious metaphors from nature. He had stopped his car before he rounded the bend that would likely show him the house. He got out and watched the trees deepening further into their winter motif down the gravel drive, and he watched as the dandelion caught his eye and lost its young. What hair he had left stood briefly in the wind. Pain twisted low in his gut. His legs ached. The bones he had been wrapped around for so long felt heavy enough to simply lower them down here in the same dirty puddle as the drowning seeds.

Instead the poet turned in a slow circle, the bare fading pines and oaks scratching the purpled sky, a spearmint tang in the air, and thought—But. He admitted, You’re only thinking of other poets, of Mary Oliver, next you’ll look for rain, a yellow thread, and God. You did not come here for tree bark and prayer and the scalloped edges of cloud banks. The house is where the new words are. The last words, please let them be.

Still he admired the trees, whose shadows lurched softening across the gravel, the failing sunlight confetti caught lower and lower in their branches as he stood gazing, procrastinator, woolgatherer. A weighted and vast stillness out here. The first grains of dark sifted down and he enjoyed this, too, the slow curtain. He could not escape it.

James Dickey, now, would have turned this grim wild into a feather that cut through the meat of what this all meant, the choice, the way the poet had at last turned to embrace the cancer. Dickey’s voice would reek of vegetation and gun oil and flash a final sun-glare into his swollen tired eyes, and Lord it would have heft.

But he was neither Oliver nor Dickey. He was not half of one. He was Corddry Smith, only that, and after seventy-three years it had become enough. Death had paid him notice, and now came clawing, crawling from his intestines, metastasizing whatever sacs its fingers grasped inside of him. Death was not an idea but a presence now, pinned to him more certainly than a spore. Which was to say, which was to prod himself, the house was the whole point, and he returned to his creaking Volvo and eased it toward the curve in the trees.

Furlough House rose into view—or it seemed to rise, somehow, cupped in a bowl as it was. The poet let the gravel drag his car to a stop and for a handful of moments tried to picture the house in a bell of spring riot, because the place might have simply burst in the green throat of May. Picturing it was a difficult effort. In November, this November, it was just an atrophied thing uprooted from some other ideal and laid into this Carolina nook. A long colonial house, the color of old blood, with twelve large windows in the front, lidless eyes without the dignity of shutters. Drab shingles. The whole of it held inside a shallow valley ringed with spruce sentinels, every one dead, everything gray but for the walls of the house and the great oak shading its right side.

This tree stood inside the bowl, a monument of roaring health and the only green for acres. A low monstrous thing with naked and muscled limbs, some like trunks in their own right, with seven tire swings suspended like ballast from the two lowest limbs. Some of the tires swayed on their stout ropes, as though only just vacated. A dead kite lay in the grass near the tree. A pair of vivid pink and white beach balls gave the patchy yard a surreal tint—he couldn’t imagine children staying here, but Corddry could see no other instruments of leisure or rest around the house. The brief porch had no rocking chairs. Nothing to use for contemplation of the vague slope and its arc of watchful crone trees, of the imminent reason for one’s presence here.

“And my House in communion, washed in gone wine,” he murmured, tasting the words and threading them out slowly, but did not bother wasting space in his pocket book. “Would I wish for rain or would it soak?” Tepid as twice-steeped tea. He had always written badly when his heart was in knots. When another lover had spurned him. When the lover that had mattered died two hundred miles from him in a hospital bed the poet never laid eyes on. In those moments he used to imagine his eyes growing into deep holes that had seen too much of all that lay ahead again. The old routine. Yet now the horizon was readable in its nearness, its abruptness. He would not again win the National Book Award. 1979 lay far behind in the brighter ashes. The poet only wished for the last handful of new words. He had no time to purify them by fire, but they could be kindled on a page. Something to shelter against the single paragraph his obituary would be shoehorned into. No surviving family. No partners. Showed great promise once.

The Volvo eased down the gentle slope. Here the gravel widened into a square. There were no cars, no garage, only a tall windowless wall serving no utilitarian purpose for the house, paint flaking like an aged fresco. He got out of the car with his overnight bag, patted the breast of his coat for his slim book.

Around the front of the house, his eyes averted from those staring tires, and the quiet was broken as he stepped up onto the porch. Low voices. The owner, a Mr. Hessel, hadn’t mentioned guests. But the poet felt no pique. Anders, a mythology man Corddry had half-known since their teaching days at Dartmouth, had told him it was “a kind of hospice” in which his cousin had “gathered his last thoughts.” There was a room here, and a bottle with an eyedropper full of “a good death” perched upon a table, that afforded one a soft, guiltless shuffle off the coil. Hessel had confirmed this in an evasive but acquiescent way. An end to the pain, and the striking through of that word—suicide—that might otherwise mar the one paragraph of eulogy in the paper. He could be interred with a kernel of pride.

But the words he’d felt he could write here—he had no way to know why he felt the assurance, the galvanization, he simply had from the first conversation with Anders—those were the true reason he’d come. The idea, from the first, had felt like removing the bookmark from himself, where he’d always fallen open to the pages of his thirties, well-thumbed, his spine lightly broken.

Cobwebs laced the quartered window in the front door. He turned the brass knob and pushed, stepped into a high-ceilinged space flush with warmth. This main room seemed to claim the bulk of the house, and it had not been cleaned in some time. Part of him registered the low fire in the grate, the uneven row of various antlered skulls along one of the oak walls, the downward slant of the ceiling. Too many sofas and stuffed chairs stood upon the vast area rug on the floor.

The rest of him took in the group of people sitting in a waiting line on two of the sofas. The sofas each tilted a bit toward the other, suggesting an arrowhead that directed Corddry toward them, and the tone of everything changed. He could feel it as a pressure in his ears, like driving into the mountains after a long time away from home, a headache, a swelling of the dust motes in the last blades of light falling through the parted curtains over the windows.

“Hello, dear,” an elderly woman said, “it’s approaching evening prayer.”

Not merely elderly but deeply old, wrinkles like crevasses and dried riverbeds, a shamanic, photojournalistic old. She and two other women and three men watched him, the deer and bird and, he thought, wolf skulls like thought balloons above their heads. They were siblings or had simply withered into a sameness, equally old, shrunken as prunes, skin stretched thin as butcher paper.

“And now a full house,” one of the men said. “Take your coat off, stay with us! You can tell us some limericks.” The others chuckled, five toothsome grins slipping behind knotted hands.

“Yes, mister,” a second woman said, her voice reedy and accented with what his little experience insisted was northern England. “We’ll have soup here shortly, after we say our prayers. I know how to make a good soup!”

The warmth, the rosy breath of the room carried the sweet smell of woodsmoke. Sweat sprang from his face and brought the pain spreading back into his knees. The poet removed his coat, draped it over the back of a wingchair, and sat facing the other guests. On the single table an apple stood, a single bite removed like a shocked mouth, its flesh white with the faintest tinge of yellow oxidation.

One of the elderly folks cleared a throat and he looked up. Only now from this lower angle did he notice the odd positioning of the women’s hands, fingers laced over their bellies from which woolen robes suddenly fell away. Those bellies were globes, fully swollen with pregnancy. Those had to be inflatable balls, watermelons, some sort of prank under those elastic shirts, even with the outward nudge of navel in the center of each, like the aroused nipple of a breast.

“I should,” the poet murmured, and stopped. His eyes trailed from one distended belly to the next. He should what? He realized he did not know. Leave, this was the sensible thing. But his head swam, small pieces of light fizzled around the edges of his vision, and he found himself finishing his thought, “I should really unpack my things.”

He had no indication that they heard him. He felt he had ceased to be in the room, so he stood and followed himself out. Their heads had bowed in prayer, as though to dictate the string of unpausing words from their narrow mouths.

2. Low Voices, Out Loud

His room—or the room he had fled to—had one small lamp on the bedside table, a wax-shaded thing that produced perhaps a single tallow candle’s worth of light. For the past hour Corddry had fidgeted, cowered on the lumpy bed, gazing out the narrow uncurtained window. The beastlike oak squatted beyond it, the tire swings deaf wind chimes. Up the slope was only an indistinct night.

He could not hole up in here. Tonight this room would make a regrettable coffin. His stomach quivered and grumbled. Hunger was rarer these days, and he welcomed it when it came, the way it felt like middle age. A bowl of their soup, a conversation with Mr. Hessel once he tracked him down, and he could either drive away or keep to his own end after a day of reflection and writing. Strange ancient siblings be damned. It was going on eight-thirty, but he hardly slept before midnight anymore, and never very deeply. His joints would saw with discomfort through the night, underneath the more profound pain in his guts, those teeth that had in recent months begun to chew at his insides with real fervor.

But outside the room were the low voices, and he could not face the drone of their interminable prayer. He sat a little longer, discovering his mind full of Daniel here at the end. It had been, he supposed, since the word “terminal” had come into play. There was no bottle on the table, nothing in the room with a skull and crossbones. The walls were old and bare. Spartan, austere, there were many words he found but none of them fit the quiet despair he felt in this room. He hoped this despair wasn’t the crystallization of an excuse, a want for a cleaner postcard ending. He hoped Daniel hadn’t filled his imagination for any lesser reasons. Or simply because of the way AIDS had taken him.

He had last held Daniel in 1993, and Daniel had last taken him six years before that. Those years stretched long enough that a simple nostalgia could manage the longing. Daniel was akin to the memory of true appetite. His lover’s body had wasted away into a protracted death, and the poet would not have that for himself. There was an honor in there, somewhere. He was counting on it.

“Daniel, a grave whose grass I never knelt upon, the way all things tend toward silence,” he said, pulling his book over and uncapping his pen. He had once written a poem on another, more recent man’s chest with this pen. He hoped it had been about something ephemeral. “Out loud, the way we would ask ourselves who dragged us from the lake,” he wrote. And the words began to come, as easy as this. A cloud of dense silence gathered as he scratched at the Moleskine pages.

He was lost, dinner forgotten until he heard a voice say through the door, “Want your soup, mister?”

A female voice, the same English one from before, but now it was so clearly fake that he couldn’t believe he hadn’t heard it the first time. These other guests, the very fact of three fully pregnant women in their nineties had impossibly dropped out of his mind. “I’m not feeling well,” he called, “I’m sorry.”

“I’ll leave it here by the door, then, poor old man.” He heard a thick grunt, a clunk of something against the floor, and pictured the woman bending over that great fleshy globe. It was several minutes before he dared creep to the door, opened it to find a wide and yellow porcelain bowl sitting there. He gathered it to him and closed himself back up in the room. He didn’t want to bless the doorknob for having a lock but did it anyway. The smell the soup gave off was a wild green miasma that cleared his sinuses. The hunger swept back to the surface and he sipped at it. Vegetable stock, and spicy as hell. His stomach was just going to have to deal with it.

He wrote a little more, him and Daniel standing in the grave, worms leaking out of rich soil, trying the words aloud to frame their cadences, until a heavy, musty drowsiness took him, swift enough to be nearly unnoted. The bar of light under the door filling up a piece at a time, the scuff of shoes crowding around it.

3. When Will He Let You, When Will He Come?

Corddry woke and his book slipped to the floor. The pen clattered after it and under the night table, upon which the lamp still shed its tallow light. He heard voices but in the sleep fog they were pitched too low, garbled. “Want him to play with us,” a man’s voice said, and the words were repeated more slowly by others, almost in a song. “Make him play with us.” “He has to.” “It’s almost time for the root.”

He scrubbed his face with his hands, stood and crept toward the door. A new voice spoke from its other side just as he bent to press his ear against the wood: “Come out now, poet.” He shrank back, realizing the first voices might not have come from beyond the door. “We know you’re trying to die on us.”

He spun in the small space, hearing more of them, “Make him play,” a grunted “God, it’s deep”—what had been in the soup he’d drunk? His eyes fell on the window, the oak rearing outside, and below it, rocking toward and away from him in lazy motion, were four of the elderly guests perched on the tire swings. Their faces were obscured moons wisped with white hair. Corddry stepped to the window and boxed his hands around his eyes, peered through and at the two women seated on tires, their own hands making slings beneath their heavy burdens. Their bellies seemed to swell with each upward forward arc. They saw him watching and waved.

The third old woman abruptly appeared and pressed her face against the window, grinning, motioning Corddry outside. Behind the woman two of her companions began chasing each other around the tree, weaving in and out of the tire swings, setting them to spin.

“Go away, please!” Corddry shouted. The strain in his throat from the words doubled him over in a coughing fit. He let his knees unhinge and he dropped back onto the bed. Buried his face in his hands and squeezed his eyes shut.

The doorknob rattled twice. “Who is Daniel?” the voice said from the door. “When will he let you?”

“When will he come?” Corddry whispered, finishing the title of his first chapbook, published in 1971, his christening as a “Rimbaud for post-Free Love America.” And he’d bought into it, nothing more so than the debauchery. A trail of wine bottles and dirtier things clanking from San Francisco to Montreal to the seams of Greenwich Village. But his blood had stayed clean through all of it. Everything went out of him suddenly on this bed, the fear, the disorientation, the cancer itself, for all he knew. The narrow mattress could have swallowed him. He only felt hollow and very tired.

“Just leave me be,” he murmured, curling into himself, “I came here to be alone. I came here to do one thing.”

From the window, muffled, another voice, “Guess he doesn’t want to play tonight.” Fists thumped on the front of the house, fading toward the front door. Soon the silence had wadded itself back into the room like cotton balls into prescription bottles, the ones he’d pushed away from himself, left back in Roanoke. His pen remained under the night table. His book lay open somewhere on the floor.

4. The Youngest Thing Here

And there was the poet Louise Glück, born eleven days after Corddry Smith, making them siblings of a sort. She haunted him most. Although he won a major award long before her Pulitzer and other immortalities, her poems had always sent him into bleak rages of jealousy. In the title piece of The Wild Iris, the very book that cast her impenetrably higher than he could ever throw, she had written of being buried alive, and of a door at the end of suffering.

Corddry woke the next morning, in weeping pain, with her words in his mouth and soil in his bed. “The stiff earth,” as she had called it, lay in crumbs upon his scalp, in the creases of the sheets. It lay in the parted cleft of his lips, tasting of stale minerals. He wished he had brought his phone, that he hadn’t doubted his resolve, but even now, who would he call? Only the proprietor, Mr. Hessel, and this would be only to enquire about the bottle with the eyedropper. Furlough House’s patented “good death.”

He wanted that bottle. And he would try to write a little more. Those lines from yesterday evening—something he thought he might call “Your Unearthed Coffin”—had been the start of something good, maybe special, better than anything he’d written in fifteen years, surely.

The main room was empty, animate with the sense of dust still settling after being disturbed. Breaths left behind to break apart into atoms, vibrations of words whispered about the poet. A lump of rot sat on the table, a riot of mold, and after a moment he recognized the indention in it as the surprised open gape of the apple that had been there the night before. Weeks had passed, if one took this apple and disregarded the remainder of the universe.

A deep spiny pain flowered in his gut. He closed his eyes, opened them with a fiercer resolve to find a phone. But the main room, extending a good hundred and fifty feet from his bedroom door, had none. He walked to the other end and opened doors, peered into messy, incongruous bedrooms with dolls and plastic robots strewn among twisted clothes, every wall alive with mildew, but the house continued to yield nothing until he reached the square kitchen at the east end of the house. This, too, was dimmed by uncleanliness, but there were no cockroaches, no smells of spoiled food. Simply the same wilting age that seemed to have coated the house like a sudden film.

One of the old women squatted on the floor there as though to piss, but what rilled toward Corddry from between her legs was a creek of blood that reeked of copper. Her straining, sweaty face was close to as red. “The root’s taking strong hold this time,” she gasped at him. There was no affectation of an English accent there now.

He stood frozen and stared at her far past the reach of decorum before managing, “Can I—I’ll find a towel.”

“Don’t mind it, it’s got to run,” she said. “It’s awful close now.” And she screamed, tipping her head to the ceiling so the tendons in her neck stood out like collarbones. He seemed to see the tip of something reach out from her just behind the sodden hem of her hiked cream skirt. Just when he could stand it no longer, she went quiet and flopped down on her rear, the skirt blessedly concealing her to just above the knees.

“I saw what you wrote,” she said, panting, looking up at him between damp wings of dark hair. “Is that a poem in that book? I didn’t understand some of those words.”

“Yes,” Corddry said. It was all he could think to say.

“But I liked where you said that about the grave and all things tending toward quiet. It’s true, when you think about it. Those trees up there. A room with nobody in it. Fruit when you take a bite of it, or when you take it from its place. We die so fast.” She smiled, suddenly bashful, and looked down at the blood-smeared floor.

“It was ‘silence,’ not ‘quiet,’ but thank you.” He cleared a blockage from his throat. “If you don’t mind, I’m trying to reach Mr. Hessel.”

“Who?” She giggled.

“Mr. Hessel, the owner of this place.”

“He doesn’t ever come.” She was still looking at the floor, dragging a finger idly through the blood, drawing an inexplicable cat with it, Corddry could have sworn. “He’s just the mouth. But we can get your nectar if you want it.”

“Nectar? Is that what you call it?” He was getting a fever—it crept out of his collar and flared on his bald scalp. “And yes, please, I came a long way for that bottle.”

“I can smell the rot in you. It hurts, it’s started to hurt a lot more, hasn’t it, and you want it gone. But we never give the bottle right away. We give you root soup. That’s so you can think about what you want to do. And you want to write in your little book, don’t you ever?”
“Yes, but—”

“What if you could write a whole book everybody would love, love, love?” At this she threw her arms wide above her head and closed them in a clap. “Something that everybody would remember forever and always?”

“I—” His vision was fuzzing around the edges again. “What is your name?”

“Willa. It’s one of my favorites. You know, you can win that pluster you want so bad.”


“That award your sister won. I like her words too. There’s some root in them.”

Dear Christ, she meant Pulitzer. She was reading his mind. Movement caught his eye through the window. The others were outside, chasing and wrestling and turning cartwheels. He could just see one of the women hanging from the massive oak at the far left of his angle of vision, using her legs to swing herself in large arcs. Things that should have shattered their brittle bones to cornmeal. A tree that seemed to flourish like nothing here did.

“Please bring the bottle to me, would you?” he said, and turned away. A great clenching in his gut stopped him just inside the short hallway. He doubled over and coughed hard enough to bloom red stars in his eyes. His throat burned. Yellowish tissue flecked across the floor, ropy like the pith of a clementine.

He took an extra moment to scrutinize the main room. Half an era had passed since his arrival, a neglected stink of time, the curtains disintegrating and spotted black around the windows. The chairs and sofas heavy with dust and discoloration. On the mildewed table was a charcoal smear where the apple had been long ago. I am the youngest thing here, the poet thought, and retired to his room.

5. In the Shaking Light

But the words came again, in a lush verdant spillage that was nearly an agony to him, though far sweeter than the creeping rot of the cancer and its brood of metastases. He nearly felt regret, that he’d come here to die and given himself the will to go on. But he refused the regret and the will at the same time and listened to just the words that fell from him. One poem was finished and the next had four stanzas that hummed in the little bedroom.

The age that had infected the house did not reach here, and his surroundings cuddled him. There came a firmness to his joints, knitted around the pain. His writing hand hardly cramped. He paused to watch the leaves stir on the hale oak outside his window, now absent of the elderly guests as evening lowered its slip. Somewhere the sun dripped away.

Yes, he did feel that he could write a book here. A collection of at least thirty elegies to the things he had seen, and to Daniel, or at least to the ideal of him, soaked in the kerosene of HIV and his own illness. Had Daniel been his one love? It was a difficult thing to turn away from, yet it had been so long ago. These could be an old man’s pangs. An old man’s predictable hindsight.

He began to get hungry again, truly ravenous in that younger way, and stood. From below the house, shrieks rose with him. Corddry thought of a dial tone, the overlaying of registers. Amplified, threaded with animal wetness, the sounds made his sinuses compress. His hand fell on the doorknob, the cold brass-plated metal shocking his skin. And as everything seemed to be paired in the tremble of these moments, he heard a hand fall on the other end of the knob.

“Stay with us,” a voice said through the hollow wood, naked and congested. One of the men. “Take care of us. Be the light here.”

“I’m dying,” he said. “Please, that’s all I need to take care of.”

“Not yet,” the voice said, stretching the words. “Come down to the root cellar. We won’t hurt you. You’ll see. You can make poems about it. And, okay, the bottle of nectar is down there, if you really do want it.”

Footsteps stomped away and Corddry followed them. The whole of the main room had now gone the spoiled black of a tumor. The ancient man was already far ahead of the old man, loping on all fours like a rabbit, back legs driving him forward into the kitchen. The poet attempted a burst of speed, braced himself for a coughing fit that didn’t quite come. The kitchen was coated in decay, the streaks of blood years ago becoming part of the cracked linoleum. A door hung open in the back, exposing a downward sloping darkness.

He placed his foot on the first step, and found the next easier, a burden slipping away from him like a yoke. His skin prickled and tasted the cool air. The poet smelled a sharp green stench, rich living earth. He thought of candles in the shaking light. Heard the shrieks of the women, in stereo, the same huffing breaths before the next. The light gave a gesture, it waved him down and onto the dirt floor of the cellar, his vision clouding with pinpricks as it had before. He felt himself changing into something, but still inimitably himself.

The cellar squatted beyond the rush of time rotting the main house. It held nothing within it but the six old guests—residents—Children, let’s call them what they somehow are, he thought—and three great twining roots. Earthen walls lined with flickering sconces, and the vast knotted appendages thick as the poet’s legs reaching through the top of the easternmost side toward the fallen sun. Down to the three women, who lay on their backs with legs spread. Corddry could not quite look away, saw the men crouched before the parted apertures, each with a root draped over his shoulder as they received the blood-slicked infants into their primed arms.

The choreography of it was what caused Corddry to turn, his gut heaving with nothing but a film of soup to bring up through his throat. He hung his head and heard the screams continue, a thread of high thin wails joining them, that dial tone again. A moment after he realized he had lain down upon the packed dirt of the floor, he opened his eyes to three more babies emerging, he saw the men gray as ash or as the roots of the monolithic oak of this house. Their arms cracked open and their faces split, crumbling into shaved bark as they staggered toward the wall and tried to insert themselves into the soil. The second of each set of twins fell to the ground between their mothers’ legs. The mothers were silenced. Alone the six new creatures mewled on.

6. The Rings of a Tree

“You’ll be our light now.” A dirt-filled voice, and somewhere else, the sharp reeds of keening infants. A pressure on his shoulder, coiled under his armpit and across his chest. Daylight shone strong through the window. In it the poet saw a blur of woman bending over him with tendrils of leafless vines where her iron-white hair had been. Brown acorns in eye sockets, or a fever dream. Teeth to shred through his breastbone in a moment. Where was the good death? He was back in the narrow bedroom, the empty walls, a membrane of glare coating his vision. No bottle on the bedside table.

“Write your book,” Willa said, and covered the crowded teeth behind a mossy hand. “Dying’s here but you won’t like how we really are.” The corners of her mouth smiled and she laughed and looked away. There was no blood on the floor to draw in now, but she was no longer shy. “Sorry to say there wasn’t ever a bottle you could drink to die. But just for you, I named one of us Daniel.”

Corddry lifted himself onto his elbows, squeezed clarity back into his eyes so that he could see the woman whose face had aged beyond years. Faint circles echoed out from her nose, concentric—The rings of a tree, the poet thought, and said, “Daniel?”

“We’re gone now into the roots. You’ll suckle us babes until we’re grown again, and we’ll grow full with child again,” she said. “Or until your sap is too polluted.” She moved toward the door and Corddry watched her break apart. Pieces of skin flaked like veins of bark. Topsoil spilled in a powder from the crevices as she staggered out of the room.

He slipped from the bed, stood on the memory of strength once in his legs, stopped his open mouth from shouting after her about the bottle. He heard her run down the hall toward the cellar. His book lay on the bed, the pen clipped to its back cover. Standing there he tried to remember all the poets, their words on death and eager, leaching life. They dimmed and dissolved. He thought of Glück and Rilke and Oliver and Dickey. He could nearly grasp a title, “Root-light,” from the last, but there was something else tethered to it, something that had never had a home with his heart, and he sat back down. Picked up the book and felt the waiting texture of its pages, the pebbled false leather of its covers.

He could hear no newborn cries. The quiet in the house had grown to profundity, so he wrote idle words until the words reached out to this profundity and pulled the quiet into them. He wrote of things seething beneath the dirt. The things were his past and his lovers and the night he stood on a stage and wept from the spotlight and the award placed into his strong unlined hands. In the dark, after the spotlight, a man with a forgotten name had twined around him and pushed into him and he had cried out.

But he felt the words leaving him. On the page they were not quite his own. Through the half-open door, the poet saw furniture gleaming with rebirth, the walls clean as though fresh from the sawmill and the carpenter. And down the length of the house, in the kitchen, a door thrown open and the clatter of footsteps running with young voices chasing them. The spores broke free of their tethers and caterwauled into the main room. The poet leapt forward and slammed and locked the door, upon which tiny fists rained with round lisped shouts of “Mister! Mister!” and “Play with us!”

He said nothing. He wrote the words “Root-Light” at the top of a new page and sat there for hours. Three of the children—which one was Willa?—gathered outside the window, taking it in turns to sit on the tire swings and keep watch over the poet. The sun was slowly sucked into the west again until the words would no longer come.

By morning, the fists against the door and the window were heavier. Still the words left him, and the taste of his lovers’ skins left him. He could only narrate himself. The children remained in their patience,

Already the lisps had faded

From their pleas and imprecations,

The gentle promises pulsing in the twins’ hunger, the six voices.

Already the poet felt his blood singing to them, vocal with compulsion

And sticky with sap.

He pressed the pen, he pushed the black ink around, but the words left the page.

Originally published in Shadows & Tall Trees 7, edited by Michael Kelly.

About the Author

Michael Wehunt lives in the lost city of Atlanta, where he wishes he had more time to read. His fiction has appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Cemetery Dance, and multiple best-of-the-year anthologies. His debut collection, Greener Pastures, was shortlisted for the IAFA Crawford Award and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. You can find him online at