Ricky Ray is a disabled poet, critic, essayist and the founding editor of Rascal: A
Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art. He is the author of Fealty (Diode Editions,
2019), Quiet, Grit, Glory (Broken Sleep Books, 2020), and The Sound of the Earth
Singing to Herself (Fly on the Wall Press, 2020). He was educated at Columbia
University and the Bennington Writing Seminars, and lives in the old green hills
with his old brown dog, Addie.
Passivity Is a Recipe for Dust
She asked for both hands. Inspected them with her fingers, as if my health were written in Braille on my wrists and she could read it. She said she could hardly detect a pulse. I seemed to be alive and lifted my eyebrows. Not your heart pulse, she said, one of the others, there are four. And the missing pulse is the pulse of the ego. I smiled, said yes, it was hard work, scrubbing me out. She shook her head, looked sad. Said no, you need to leave a little; desire's an essential oil; otherwise you're bound to dry out.
Isn't your average mutt a mix of six righteous whiskies?
Or is the taste of dumb living always barbed wire
strung down the middle of my gut? I couldn't rightly say.
I speak so wrong truth's a creature rarely encountered.
But it lingers this side of myth. It watches from the trees.
I sleep with it, some nights. It fits like a bone
that doesn't break, or if it breaks, it's just a mouthful of bread.
One day and the next offer such contrary weathers,
it's hard to know how to take them.
The stomach might color everything nauseous
or the joints might grind like gears wearing each other out
or the little harmony that visits my chest
a couple of times each swing of the moon
might just set up a band between my ears and tap its toes all day.
She saunters across the green hill in her feline faultlessness, then pauses, the sight of prey unfolding in her like a present unwrapped one layer of tissue at a time. Her steps become measured, mechanical, each footfall a calculation where to crinkle a leaf is to telegraph her intent. She drops low to the ground and time bends around her, her shoulder advancing like a sculpture pulling itself free from the rock.
The wind flattens the grass and the leaves chatter and the shrew parts the meadow in search of seed. Charlie can already taste its neck and twitches her ass, flattens her ears, sees it happen: the shrew's last-second awareness, the squeal, the attempt to flee, the pounce, the grab, the bite. And then she lives out the film she has already seen, graceful as water, if water were a snake that struck, flowing to the lowest level, the rapid pulse, the aphrodisiac of fear, the fangs sunk in the trembling throat.
If that were all, it would be fair, but the kill does not amuse the perpetual kitten. She releases and pounces, pounces and bites, tosses and bats and catches and drops. The shrew cries and bleeds and struggles and flees, first on a broken leg, then a torn open gut, then an eye that spills its jelly down the cheek. Charlie bites until breath is the shrew's only response, and loses interest. In boredom she leaves it to the fire of ants and the slow crawl of the sun.
I step into the late light and head to the barn, half-expecting the find. A storm pushes its black head across the horizon and I notice the scuffled grass. Charlie. Again. Damnit. I nudge the shrew with the toe of my boot and it lets out the barest squeak, so slight it could be the rub of my boot against the grass, but I bend down and see, through bloodslick grey, the slow rise and fall of its ribs. I close my eyes. I walk away. I come back. And again I bring down the shovel until the Earth is the shrew's new skin.
The rain falls. I spear the shovel and burn. What's done is done. The axe calls. I have wood to chop. A fire to build. A family to warm against winter's icy kisses on the backs of our necks. My heart's heaviness seems contained in the head of the axe. We have been here before. Too many times. I have held Charlie face down in what was left of the kill, cuffing her neck. She growled. I growled back.
I chop and stack, work up a sweat. The cracks echo like gunshots through the woods. Every so often, I stop and call out to her, careful to control my tone. I wait for her to show her face. Around about dusk, the rain lets up and she pokes her head through the door of the barn. I smile and speak sweetly, coaxing, soothing. She approaches and watches me lift the hatchet from my belt.
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