poet,  performer, creative writer, instructor,
arts project coordinator, Denver, Colorado

first published 2000 – HAPPY 14





               ‘Twas the year of the rat...the year a thick butter sun slid lazily down our strong brown backs...endless days of cotton sky, baby gurgling blue. ‘Twas a year of glistening corn, waving wheat that winked, that teased, that laughed in the wind & told jokes...of honey thick as evening breeze...& a moon so close, so white, you could reach up & milk it. ‘Twas a year of velvet midnights, silken darkness...tall shadowy trees...wind playing hide & seek. Of fireflies...talking crickets...& each star a great-great-great-great-grandparent...twinkling proudly over swaddling progeny.

               ‘Twas the year Kane & I wrestled among cows...fought over fishing poles...& what to name each new sheep. We marked our gangling growth in notches slit across Father Time, the name Grandpa had given our favorite oak tree. ‘Twas a year of whistling plows plundering the topsoil... of songs...& good morrows splattering the countryside in full-scented bloom. Of blackberry pies... & flour-cheeked moms...long satin hair...tied from behind...of dark-eyed girls beneath blushing bonnets...& men tossing horseshoes...swapping tall tales... straw lazily lounging from glimmering teeth.

               I was almost thirteen...when a stranger came to town...a pale stranger with a skinny black tie. We were there when his wagon rolled/creaked/groaned into our village square. We were splashing in mud...the Thompson twins, Hector & Jud...had splashed us first, my brother & me. We were wreaking sweet revenge...when the whinny of the stranger's mare...& the barking of his wagon wheel alerted our innocence...that something like lightning, like thunder had just rumbled into our quiet yawning town. From the safety of a statue...a stone colossus of our founding mayor...we watched as he whoa’d his horse... jumped to our earth, scarring it with his jangling boot heels.

               Everything about the pale man shined: his boots, his buckles, his silver brimmed hat, his toothy smile...the playful glint in his one good eye. We watched & he peeled like fruit the layers from his caravan... revealing curtains of the blackest velvet... bottles & jugs...vials & labels bold as lions...& a flaming red sign...MIRACLES & MAGIC...from the divine hand of...DOCTOR MANN...(free payment down). We watched & he tipped his hat & kissed each lady's hand... laughing like a thundercloud...grabbing men by the shoulder as he shook them by the hand.

               Kane & I were first to saunter over...Jud & Hector followed close behind. Word traveled fast...a stranger the color of bread had descended the mountain...& landed in our virgin town. In less than an hour like bees our whole world came buzzing...Old Man Jackson, with his mouth of missing teeth...the harelipped widow...her witch of a sister...the bald & always-babbling-to-himself Mr. Ernst. There was skinny Miss Sally who cried to keep herself thin...& mean Mrs. Thompson, tugging her gray stringy hair...lecturing her hunchbacked husband, who nodded... absentmindedly as he stroked the smooth head of his golden retriever. There came Pa...& behind him the midget, Johnny Hucklewheat. Our mother stood to one side with the other moms... wringing their aprons with suspicion...drying their sweaty palms...fingering their wedding bands. There was Bobby J who shoed our horses, mended our plow & secretly pined while he pruned Miss Sally's begonias. There was the Reverend Father...beside the Mayor...both stood, arms folded, toward the rear...along with Freddy Stimpson, a cripple two weeks new to town. There were babies gurgling & dogs yapping...& barefoot girls moo-moo eyeing their chosen men. Kane & I stood near Jed, the carpenter's lanky idler, Ma warned us...tho he spun the funniest yarns...(even causing Ma to grin)...& whittled wooden flutes he’d part with for less than a song. The Thompson twins crouched between Jed's the stranger beckoned every God fearing man to step closer... claiming he could break a hammer with an egg he would create in the palm of his hand.

               Cross his heart & hope to fry, he chuckled...& poof: he held a speckled goose egg...raised it to his eye...rolled it in his palm...tossed it lightly in the air..."Just an ordinary egg," he said...& he petitioned for a brave soul...a witness to verify his truth be so. All the men I looked up to dug their hands in their pockets...looking their the the caravan of jugs & each the the skinny black tie...& the hundred points of light that shone from the stranger's silver hair.

               It was Kane who pulled away...his elbow brushing my he stepped on the shadow of the stranger...who handed him the egg...just an ordinary egg...& the stranger said: "Let it fall"...& Kane did...& it fell...cracking... yellow yolk & speckled egg shell... mixed with soil. "Just an ordinary egg," the stranger laughed...with a wink, a nod & tweak of his trimmed mustache.

               He poofed another egg from a polka dotted handkerchief...set it gently in Kane's hand. "Just an ordinary egg," he grinned...& Kane nodded..."Thank you, son" & he stroked Kane on the head...Kane came triumphant...grinning... showing coins the stranger had slipped into his hand.

               "Just an ordinary egg," the stranger said..."But what if I coated this egg with unadulterated virgin snake oil?"...& his brow formed a question mark... punctuating a silence that could unnerve the dead. The women ooh'd & ah'd... at the thought of a snake untainted by a male...& the men imagined the stranger...slaving in the sun... wringing the necks of female vipers...collecting the gooey death sweat in a pail...straining it, purifying it, funneling it into glass bottles...according to the latest in scientific methods...then using it on anything that ailed. So we wondered: what would happen?...if he coated that egg with -- what did he call it? una-something-or-other virgin snake oil.

               When he flailed his arms a fluttering dove appeared...& flew to the nearest rafter. When he spoke in tongues a pan graced his hand, clanged 'gainst his knuckles, gleaming in the empty pan...but with a flick of his thumb...became full of clear liquid goo...that he dipped the egg into...then he dipped a hammer. "The hard will be made soft, the soft hard & the meek shall inherit the earth," he pronounced..."that is, as long as they take their daily teaspoonful."...& he flashed his perfect teeth. He smote the egg...the hammer disintegrated..."Thus is the power," he giggled, "of genuine virgin snake oil."

               Then a voice called from the rear. Freddy Stimpson hobbled thru the crowd..."Can it make me walk?" he challenged..."Can it make me dance & swim?"...& the crowd parted like a he limped on handmade crutches... nearly falling at the stranger's booted feet. The stranger stroked his beard...& tipped a broad-brimmed grin.

               "If you believe in the power...& know what words to placate the heavens...the blind will see...the lame will walk -- but tell me sir, how long have you suffered this debilitating affliction?" Freddy Stimpson mumbled 'bout being crippled all his life. The stranger shook his head..."Then your affliction was ordained by God...& what God hath joined let no man put asunder...that is," the stranger added, "unless that someone be a doctor...& that doctor be named Mann.

               Of course, ordinary snake oil would be useless...but that's why I've created high octane super strength"...& he pulled from a hidden pocket a vial of deep blood red... poured three drops on a ladle...had us repeat strange words in a foreign tongue. He laughed & cried & fell on his knees...gazing up at a hazy blue horizon. His face turned red, then green, then pale again..."Open wide" he said. Freddy Stimpson knelt...opening wide...slipping out his nervous tongue. The stranger poured...the cripple grimaced...his face turned red, then green, then back to brown again. He threw down his crutches...took a shaky step...nearly tumbling over. Pa & Mr. Thompson had to catch him...steady him. He wobbled forward...each step growing twenty steps he was walking steady as anyone..."I can walk!" he shouted...throwing up his arms... screaming "Thank You" to the heavens..."I can skip, I can run!"...running bee-like thru the crowd...he laughed & cried & fell on his knees...& the others moved closer toward the stranger...unburdening their pockets of gold watches and spare change.

               That's when Kane grabbed my arm & pulled me from the wondering what snake oil might do for my lisp..."I wanna thee!" I protested, stomping my foot on the dusty soil...but Kane held firm & dragged me along... enticing me with his shiny coins...implying where there was some, there was sure to be more. He led me to the edge of town...the edge of our world...where all forbidden lay beyond. At a hollow elm he earlier had carved his mark upon...he reached in deep...pulling out a polka dotted handkerchief...wrapped within were other shiny coins. "But how?" I said..."And where?" "From the divine hand of Doctor Mann" he laughed...telling how yestereve he came upon a campfire tended by the one-eyed man. When I protested he ceased his belly-laughing... twisting my arm when I threatened to tell...even offered to split the money 60-50. When I refused...he knocked me to the ground...punched & kicked...till I tripped him...& jumping to my feet, I ran. Still his legs were stronger...his shoes of surer leather. I could hear his footsteps...& heavy breathing closing in. Something solid struck me on the head...I tumbled forth... felt something warm & flowing. Then I saw the whole world turn red.

               The sky filled with metal ax, a sword, a bomb in each of their terrible hands. I saw rifles rolling down an assembly endless river of gleaming sparkling silver fish...jumping into a million anxious hands. A symphony of bullets harmonized to screams of cries of women...punctuated by determined men spitting poignant platitudes...And I heard the steady ching-ching, ching-ching of cash-registers: money endlessly changing hands. Nausea clogged my nostrils as I pleaded to Kane...not to do this...not to leave his brother bleeding in the sand. Kane smirked...”Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked...raising his handkerchief to protect his nose from the oncoming stench.

               The sun lay pierced on a broken horizon. Soon I heard a strange chirping...a steady rhythmic a mocking bird – a rusted wagon wheel. I watched as Kane climbed onto the moving back was Freddy Stimpson twirling his crutches like a baton. From the east, black clouds had begun to gather. I grew parched & thirsty...but tho the sun wept...the sky refused to rain.

               I called one last time to my departed brother... swearing I wouldn't tell...promising all would be forgiven. My head grew heavy as the caravan dissolved into the purple distance. That's when a buzzard pecked me on the shoulder...another landing on my head. A third fluttered inches from my face, swishing its tail as it boldly strutted. It turned to the others...& I heard it say...that during this year of the rat...the buzzard would also have its day.





© SETH 2000


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