To Survive on a Bird
The child no longer blinks
when flies crawl toward his eyes.
The boy has watched the others
die in this makeshift camp,
splayed against the ochre landscape
and reflected now in his blank gaze.
A blue tarp flaps but offers him
a patch of dusty shade,
flimsy protection from the desert sun.
His grandmother is the oldest here.
Her eyes blaze, her skin shines
as she keeps watch beside him.
"I can survive on a bird," she says.
And in this silence
her voice rises like the song of a desert lark,
which has no reason to sing,
except that it shines, alive,
in thorns of an acacia tree.
"Here come the men with lamps
on their heads," we whispered.
They shuffled toward us, their shadows
long in evening sun, specters bearing secrets
from pits deeper than roots and worms.
Coal dust smeared their faces black,
leaving pale rings around their eyes
like full moons that lured zombies
from their tombs, or like the banjo eyes
in blackface at the Elks Club minstrel.
At Austin's Barbecue we bought
maple sugar patties and sneaked looks
at miners sitting on low stools at the counter
in smoky air. They drank beer and played
Ferlin Husky songs on the Wurlitzer
with rainbow swirls before heading home
to gray frame houses and the smell
of cooking fires in the coal camp
up Fry Hollow. We used to think
the blinking red and white lights beside
the company store advertised a stage show
in the union hall instead of signaling
each week's mine accidents or deaths.
Your father survived a cave-in,
but when he died of black lung at fifty-five,
you vowed you'd not work underground.
Instead you learned to fly and said
you always loved that moment best
when you'd burst through a gloom of clouds
into an endless blaze of blue.