We’ve never met, of course–
You died so strangely years ago–
But living on this hill, once yours,
Hearing bits of stories,
Our lives still touch in certain ways and places.
I know you in the calmness of the view down to the lake,
In the long, reclining hills across the water
That stretch to east and west,
And, especially at this time of year,
In the waves of wildflowers
That gather, crowding every shade of purple into pink,
So high their beauty reaches nearly to my lips.
Time doesn’t change such things,
And I wonder if they touched you, too.
Your little makeshift house is gone,
The one the neighbors built for you
When the old one you inherited burned down,
And I feel a little guilty.
It was the people before us–I’ll blame them–
Who cleared it off so they could build,
Hauled it deep into the weeds and used it for a shed;
When we moved here, we wondered why a shed
Would have a mirror on the wall,
And half the inside pink, the other bitter green.
Then gradually, mixed up with our hoses and tomato cages,
We found homely things: a stovepipe,
A rusty drop-side toaster, clothes hooks on the wall,
And the giveaway, above the windows,
Whole sets of curtain rings.
It dawned on us, this was someone’s home,
Someone led a life in here,
And we are trespassers on our own land.
Nevertheless, it was a creaking hazard
In the autumn winds, so we were the ones
Who tore it down last spring, most disrespectfully,
With a pickup truck, a rope, and the anchor from our sailboat.
We hooked it, pulled it, cracked it with an axe,
Using all the physics we could improvise
Until it gave, and folded slowly in upon itself,
And went to rest beneath the goldenrod and wild daisies.
A tidy job, and yet I felt the sin it was
Against that private space you lived in,
Where you grew odd, they say,
After the girl you were to marry failed to show,
Even though you’d started building a new home for her next door;
You turned the big, sad, half-built place
Into a barn instead and filled it,
So our woodman told us,
With forty, maybe fifty cats
And six raccoons, and all of them running to you,
Out from the barn, some dropping from the trees,
When you came to the door of the little house and called, “Puss-puss!”
The buried ruins of that barn are under our side lawn
Where no tree we plant will grow–
The ground’s too thick with rock and board and other things
Beneath its thin, deceptive layer of earth.
More of your story lies beyond that lawn,
On the green breast of the slope above the brook
Where we’ve found the glitter of your solace underneath some trees,
Years’ worth of broken bottles heaped
Where, our neighbor says, you and his grandpa
Could be found of an evening
With your pints or jars or jugs of brew.
You might be pleased to see I’ve salvaged
The few bottles that stayed whole, some pretty ones,
And put them in our big south-facing window
Where they fill with light and sky and lake,
The view you knew.
Your oddness was your space, your space your oddness,
Painted with ends of other people’s paint,
Though there were little comforts: the cats,
The drinking buddy, and kind neighbors
Who sent their children down the frozen road in winter,
Pulling your groceries on their sleds,
Or across the brook and up the field in summer
With fresh baking, a local lady told me,
To your little refuge at the midpoint of the hill
That looked steadily down to the lake, year after year,
From in between the drifts of snow, the drifts of flowers.
I hope the flowers helped. They might have,
Because I found a struggling little garden in the brambles,
Like a lost bouquet, peonies a violent purple-red,
Ringed by a lush thatch of lily of the valley,
Passionate and delicate all at once. I like to think
You planted it for her before she came, a welcome,
Before you knew she wasn’t coming–
Or maybe it was later.
Imagining either makes you seem less odd,
And your strange death, brought on by a bad scratch
From one of the teeming crowd of cats
(I can almost hear your neighbors sigh, “Well, what
would you expect, the place was overrun…”)
Less pointless and inevitable.
Whatever rules these matters,
It’s fallen to me to tend your view a while,
A shifting space in time, brief and true
As a gathering of blue reflected in a bottle in a window,
And it makes me wonder if I have it in me
To grow odd myself, in spite
Of a life of sturdy reality, of intricate love
I take for granted like good weather.
It could happen to any one of us, it seems to me,
Were we enough alone,
And if we let the flowers woo us,
And the ghosts brush near enough
As they drop from the trees,
Quietly, one by one,
The only creatures truly
At home upon the land.