Soft as buckskin and long as a train’s whistle, mourning dove calls drift down the summer afternoon, signaling the coming evening coolness. I listen hard and try to see what the doves are saying. Their calls mean my father will be home soon, rich with the smells of new-cut wood, pipe tobacco and man-sweat. My father can see a cottontail rabbit’s eye in a brush pile. He says you can’t know a place until you can feel it in your blood. He says lots of things. I try to listen. When he’s home I can leave the house where my mother’s fears scrape loud and harsh as fingernails on a blackboard.
The first cicadas tune their chanting from high in the locust trees, a chanting like wind scarred across barbed wire. Or like my mother who, they say, has nerve problems. The chanting seems to etch hieroglyphs on the sun-burned shimmering air, and I see dark caves with magic writing on the walls, and sometimes I see long-haired women dancing as their sweaty skin reflects firelight Sometimes I see other things I don’t want to know.
I have seen coyotes hung upside down on Osage orange fence posts, their ears cut away. Little prairie winds blow across their eye teeth whispering old dark stories of the earth. Stories like my grandfather used to tell. I have heard those murmured stories, have leaned into them, have learned what I can learn. Have crouched there in the tall prairie grasses like a young, cottontail hiding from hunting hawks. In spring, I pray to lightning when thunder storms lash the sky and the whole world roars with rain.
I know this is the center of the world because the world runs away from here in every direction. I have seen the wind-blown prairie grass dance into all the horizons. And I know that beneath the grass lays the Old Man Rock, yellow and white and hard. Neva Limestone, they call it. The Old Man Rock is why this place has never been plowed. His white stone back is too near the earth’s surface and breaks the bright plow blades. Once I saw a battle between the sun and stones, the sun’s battering ram brightness burning on the hard, white rock, but my mother called me away before I saw who won.
Before I was old enough to see stones or sun, not yet old enough to look beyond my mother’s face, she nearly disappeared into illness. She remained balanced on its edge, her face turned toward the dark. Afternoons when I was still very young and could escape the house, I would climb into an old mulberry tree whose great limbs, like arms, would cradle me, rocking me as I ate its red fruit. It was there I came to know Mourning doves. They built their ramshackle nests there and quickly came to know me. The mother dove sat on her nest only a few feet away as I dreamed in the sun, her tan face, knowing, understanding.
Slowly I came to see her as another mother whose soft, gentle ways helped heal the wounds my human mother’s hysteria opened. Long, warm evenings I lay in twilight listening to stories the mother dove murmured, telling of how the world is in a solid mulberry tree anchored in the earth and rich with warm, purple fruit. Her voice mingled with the rustling leaves and the occasional creaking of branches as her murmuring presence painted a world safer and softer than my human mother’s world.
Sometimes I think my human mother’s just a big, old black snake like I saw when I was little. My father had showed me a cottontail bunny’s nest filled with babies. They were soft and furry and hidden in the mama rabbit’s hair she had pulled and put in the nest. Next day when I went to see them, a long, black snake was eating them. They made big lumps in her. I wanted to kill her, but I didn’t know how. Near here I saw prairie chickens dance in a flurry of feathers. Long ago, my father said, buffalo grazed here. In winter, snow blows down out of the north, and spring tornadoes turn the sky green, then blow everything away. My father had a friend who was out riding his horse and was struck by lightning. The lightning drove the horse’s hooves down into the earth. The horse and my father’s friend were turned to jelly, my father said.
Soon my father will be home, and I can leave my mother with him. I can cross the road and go deep into the twilight of sunflower fields where their black and gold heads droop over me as I lay by the little creek and watch minnows dart through its water. Songs of mourning doves drift to me from the old, dead elm tree. Their calls carry me on the wind.
Red-winged blackbirds sing above me. The red on their wings winks like the eyes of gods. Later a dove lights beside the little pool to drink. I try not to blink, not to frighten her. I don’t tell anybody, but I know she’s my bird-mother. That she would be calm and soft and loving. I know that.
The earth turns a darker shade of light, a rusty gold and a darkness like the light inside your head where you can’t see anything, but you see everything, like looking into a dream, or trying to read the writing on a turtle’s back. Once when I ran away to the river, a coyote came to see me. I saw the same brown and gold flame in its eyes. Mother said I was bad for going to the river and that I was lying about the coyote. My father said I had a way with animals and the river loved the deep and the quiet.
I did not know, but I knew that this was twilight. A magic light when evening came and called out earth’s secrets, like fireflies blinking in the dark. My father said part of an old poem he learned, “Between the dark and the daylight, comes a time known as the children’s hour…” but I don’t remember any more of it.
Among the sunflowers when evening comes, I drift down into more than I can think. I drift down into old, old voices deeper than the river, down into golden dove-light, the magic ends of day where all the hidden voices of the earth rise up and whisper, and I ask for them to whisper deep into my blood.
In that moment I kneel in the tall prairie grasses and love more than I can say.
John Noland lives and writes near the ocean in Coos Bay, Oregon. He has published in Chicago Review, Orion, Nature Writing 1999 ed. by John Murray, Georgetown Review, Seattle Review, Laurel Review, Poet Lore, Limestone, Big Muddy, Camas, Intricate Homelands, and other journals. His chapbook, This Dark Land Where I Live, won Kulupi Press’ 2005 Poems of Place contest. The Caged and the Dying, won the Gribble Press 2012 Chapbook contest. In 2014 Midwestern Trees and Shadows was published by Finishing Line Press and That Dark and Other Light in 2015.