Pel Mel

This is one of the Manitoulin stories. I have also included it in the Island Stories section of the Longer Works page for anyone who would like to read them altogether.

Pel Mel

Oh glory of sun-haloed chaff hanging in newly birthed silence, offspring of the bale-elevator’s clamor, clig-clig-clig, clig-clig-clig, clang, clig-clig-clig, clig-clig-clig, clang, interminable, and the engine chanting beneath it all, a noise gestated in the warm closeness of the mow, in its uterine murk, growing as the hay bales rise, one atop the other, first this way then that, filling the womb of the mow, distending it, and the noise, clig-clig-clig, clig-clig-clig, clang, clig-clig-clig, clig-clig-clig, clang, concentrated with the chaff and the heat, throwing itself into the mow like seed into a womb, interminable, until the moment, oh glory of sun-haloed chaff hanging in the doorway of the afternoon, when the long labour is ended and silence lies in the mess of its afterbirth.  The breeze, so slight, eddies there in the doorway, with the haloes and the silence, where I am standing.  It is too weak even to move the dust of the air, only loiters at the threshold, running its fingertips over the skin of things, delicately, cautiously, intimately, like blind fingers on an unfamiliar face.  It is hiding itself between the heat of the mow and the heat of the sun, in the sliver of shadow that the barn is beginning to cast into the yard, where I am hiding too, on the threshold of the mow, my arms raised to rest against the top jamb of the broad door, leaning out into the yard, like the shadows and like the breeze, attendants at the birth of this sudden quiet, this completion, this expectancy, this waiting for what will come to fill the unforeseen emptiness of an afternoon.

The others have already left the mow, down the ladder, through the void we kept in the hay, layer by layer, to the stairs, then through the barn and the empty stalls and the milkhouse, smelling sweetly of the manure freshly scraped into the gutters and the milk souring where it has spilled on the floor, past the ledge where the basin of milk is set, where the cats can sometimes be surprised and captured, though certainly not without gloves and even then not without risk of bloody arms.  I can see them, those others, drifting off beyond the corner of the barn to the farmhouse, where lunch will be on the table now, surely, sandwiches of cow’s tongue or egg salad between slices of heavily buttered homemade bread, oatmeal cookies with chopped dates and raisins, freshly pressed carrot juice, but I am hungry only for the unexpected emptiness of the day, for what it might bring, for the haloes that the dust motes wrap around themselves, for the tender fingers of the eddying breeze, for the sliver of shadow resting between one heat and another, for the infant silence that sleeps over everything.

The clinging of my shirt becomes suddenly unbearable, the chaff sticking to the wetness.  I pull it over my head and fling it into the yard, floating and twisting, like a bird shot on the wing, drifting and fluttering, passing through the shadow to the sun, landing beneath the wheel of the hay wagon, and I will leave it there, as we have left the wagon, to be collected at the leisure of another time, to become the perfect luxury of an all but completed task.  I sit on the elevator, unlace my boots, and throw them too, no fluttering or drifting, only heavy, projectile flight, then my balled socks, tumbling.  The air hangs cool on my shoulders and feet, trickles with the sweat down my chest.  I let the whole world dangle like my feet, the cool, the shadow, the breeze, the quiet, let it all dangle over the edge of the mow,  kicking absently with my heels, awaiting whatever it is that will come, compelling the world to wait with me, kick its heels, feel the air hang cool on its shoulders.

At last, how long, the waiting calls me to my feet and down the elevator, quietly at first, to keep the metal panels from popping, the supports from creaking, but the elevator’s voice is insistent.  It scoops the infant silence from the shadowed ground, lets it howl its first cries, frees me from caution, so I abandon myself to the clatter of its rungs, clang-clong-cleng, clang-clong-cleng, a ragged and joyous noise that does not end the silence but erupts from it, makes it audible, spills and runs and overflows, like abundance and surplus, like teeming and proliferation, like deluge and cataclysm, like everything abundant, extravagant, profuse.  My feet, bare, slapping, are a riot and a tumult of expectation, cool at first, down the rungs, then suddenly hot, where the shadow ends and the sun rests itself upon the metal: cool-cool-cool, cool-cool-cool, hot-hot-hot, hot-hot-hot, and then a leap into the grass, growing long in the lea of the elevator, smelling of only what it is, grass and summer and the heat of the sun.

Oh, and then, as glorious as any halo, I run, pel mel and trip-trip-tripping on chickory and wild carrot and burdock, what the cows will not eat, stumble and tumble on the hems of my jeans, too long for barefoot and frayed besides and split at the knees and worn to white thread at the thighs by bale after bale, hup, up on the thigh, and toss, and hup, up on the thigh, and toss, but no more, not for another year, so I tear the jeans at the knees until the legs dangle by the seams, cut them away with my knife, cut them like traces from a horse, leave it all in a pile and run free, bare-kneed now and bare-foot, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Johnny Appleseed, bare-foot in the cow-meadow.

The meadow runs too, slow and liquid, like honey, like intoxication, like honey-wine, like mead, running, running, and the bees rise in alarm from their pollen-feasts, fly off to make mead of the meadow.  I throw myself into that mellifluence, drink its sweetness up, not merely lapping it from cupped hands like the wise three hundred, nor even drinking it straight from the stream like the foolish thousands, but leaping into its depths, breathing it in, filling my lungs with it, even to drowning.  It is equal parts honey and the blood of gods, this meadow wine, a drink that makes wise, but there are no words for this wine’s wisdom.  Its truths are written in the petals of asters and fleabane and bergamot, held fast to the flesh by sweet-salt sweat, legible only to the meadow, summer-hot, insect-droned, pollen-hazed.

The grasshoppers scatter at my feet, helter-skelter-pelter, then settle to wait and scatter once again, pht-t-t-t-t, pht-t-t-t-t, pht-t-t-t-t, my emissaries, the vanguard of my advance.   They make a way for me, put everything in readiness for my coming, a bare-foot, bare-chested king, dust-caked and mad, leaping and dancing, as if before the ark of a holy covenant.  Locusts and honey, locusts and honey, fit food for prophets, but I have no clear vision, only expectancy, a void that something will arrive to fulfill, I prophesy it.  The grasshoppers leap into the void of the afternoon, not gliding or floating, but hurling themselves, wing-beat by wing-beat, over the plants, their mountaintops, only to sag again on the other side and fall to earth, then hurl themselves again, leaping, leaping, leaping, pht-t-t-t-t, pht-t-t-t-t, pht-t-t-t-t, and I also hurl myself, and I let myself fall, for the joy of falling, tumbling, rolling.  I am submerged in the meadow, drowning in locusts and honey, in wisdom and prophesy that cannot be uttered.

There is not the slightest moisture in the grass, the dew long gone, only dryness, summer-afternoon-dryness, time-for-haying-to-be-finished-dryness, dust-in-puffs-as-you-pass-by-dryness, and hot, not humid, but pleasantly, the sun on face and on shoulders.  I am covered in the dust by now, caked with it where the sweat of the mow still clings.  I wallow in it, in the heat and the sun, lying where I fall sometimes, looking up through the orange-red sky of my eyelids, through the chain-lightning blood vessels, back-lit by a long distant sun.  I am an offering to the sun, to the heat and dust, to whatever it will bring.  The world is my alter stone.  I sweat honey and blood together, wetting the dust with the sacrifice of my body, and I take its sacrifice with me too, as I stand and run, a tithe of wetted earth on my skin.

And now the meadow is lost to forest, and I am loosed into the trees like an arrow, piercing its borders, through the whipple-trees and raspberries and arrowwoods, along the cowpath, and beneath the canopy.  There is no undergrowth, grazed to stubble and trampled to muck, and the black mud, hardened now so late in the summer, holds the shape of cattle hooves, like a bed of fossils.  The petrified punctures are too round for my naked feet, too hard, so I slow, walk gingerly among them, finding patches of solidity in the midst of them, skirting their edges, where the branches have kept the broad bovine bodies and their soon to be fossilized hoof-prints from approaching the tree trunks.  The cow patties, a few days old, are heat-hardened too, but only to a crust, still moist and muddy within, squishing between my toes when I misstep, deliciously, the profoundest proof of God, that even cow dung should feel like this.

The path runs through the woods, I know, running between two fencelines until it reaches the far field along the highway, across from one of the inland lakes, but the void of the afternoon will accept no highways.  It opens itself only to the hidden and the forgotten, I see it now, only to what nature has half-reclaimed, the bones of cattle, green with moss and piled in a pit beyond the cedar rails, a decaying tractor, red more with rust than paint, eyeless and staring, parked finally a few yards beyond the bones, so I scale the fence, sit astride it for a time, savour the moment, not of indecision, but of a decision made and not yet enacted, of knowing what I will do without yet having to do it, then slide down among the green-white bones, among the long ribs and the unrecognizable skulls.  These are the portents of what the afternoon anticipates, illegible and obscure.  I squat among them, half-naked and smeared with dust, like a madman seeking signs among bones tossed by a giant hand, turning them over in my own hands, reading the omens meant for another, reordering the bones around me, changing who knows what destinies.  Only a madman would dare such things, only someone maddened by anticipation, who has seen the very dust wear haloes, who has attended the birth of infant silence, who has drunk the blood and honey of the meadow, who has seen the sun through red chains of lightening.

The bones send me onward, without direction, only onward, and I obey, past the tractor, the belts hanging limply and the radiator exposed between its gouged eyes.  Whatever trail it made in coming is long overgrown, the skeletal machinery fringed by tall grass, by chokecherry bushes, by young cedars, the growth of several years or more.  I run my hand along it as I pass, red paint and red rust, flaking, speckling the grass, staining my fingers, and then there is only forest, birch and maple among the shield ferns.  One tree leads to another, always, one to the other, each still believing that there is no end to their leading, one to the other, believing that axes and saws have not yet cut the forest into ribbons, believing that each tree still reaches out to touch another across endless spaces, world without end.  I reach my hands too, touching each in turn, and I believe as they do, at least for a time, fall into the eternity that the trees imagine themselves itself to be, lapse into the forest’s  long-past but lingering dream, but a second fenceline, cedar rail, now fallen, dissolves the illusion, running between the woods and a vast, untended field, long untilled.  The trees here do not have the luxury of disbelief.   They are the footsoldiers of war, long in retreat, blow by blow, furrow but furrow, but now advancing on fields gone fallow, their seedlings now freely encroaching on the grain-land, spilling over the fence rails in a long, slow assault on everything cultivated, leaving the fence hidden among the newly unrestrained trees and bushes.  The grasses of the field, uncut, come up almost to my chest, and I leave a trail through them, a wake of bent stalks, golden, and crushed leaves, verdant, as I make for the tractor lane across the field, invisible still, but marked by a double line of trees, a stubborn remnant, so long besieged by the tilled and the planted, but waiting now, just a few decades more, to rejoin the wild fecundity of the forest.

The lane angles away from me, its attendant trees blacking my view, but I can see a barn behind it.  The doors hang open, and the boards are falling from the beams, unused, surely, though the lane has not been abandoned, not wholly, the grass between the ruts shorter than on either side, and tire tread still showing, dried in the mud of the last rain.  I can see now, just a few steps more, where the lane ends, not at the settling barn, but closer, at an old drive shed, barn board too, and subsiding into its foundations.  Its door is ajar, I can see, even from this far, an invitation, and I know that this is what the day has been expecting, what it birthed in silence and drank in the meadow and followed among the trees, this, this, this, but I know not to rush my attendance, approach it slowly, obliquely, as if stalking prey, not raising its suspicions, not causing it alarm, not making my intentions known, until I am right at the door, my hand on the latch, standing at the threshold of possibility, of anticipation, nowhere leading everywhere, nothing holding everything.  To pass through this place is to make things come to be, to end possibility, I know, and I hesitate, then step into what is waiting.

There are light-haloed motes of dust like a universe of meteors, quasars, milky ways, supernovas, suspended in their vast distances, their lightyears, between the low beams of the shed.  They are the constellations of a fate that might be read, if only I knew their language, but I do not read them, only throw myself onto them.  How many million worlds do I wrench from their orbits as I wade among these stars, send them swirling into the dark corners of the universe, where their lights are blackened, and they settle in the cracks and the pits of the cement slab floor?  I am a god, a colossus, striding among the constellations that once foretold my destiny and now foretell nothing.  I have scattered the augers, unseated the heavens, left the magi of countless worlds to wonder at the meaning of their night skies.

There, beneath the timbered heavens, the end of what began in the womb of the mow, are two wooden speed boats, almost twins, with long narrow boards sweeping from bow to stern,  oval cutouts framing their seats, carefully tarped.  They have been here a long time, longer than the rusted tractor in the birch forest, longer than the bones bleaching by the split rail fence, tenderly stored and then forgotten beneath the sagging roof and the rotting beams and the galaxies of dust, all this time, unsuspected, awaiting the day, this day, when the labour of the day would open into an expectancy, when the meadow would intoxicate and the trees lead from one to the other, and place me here, before them, the one who has witnessed the birth of the day, drunk the wine of the meadow, played with the telling-bones of giants, scattered galaxies through the low heavens, and I do not know what they mean, these dry-rotted, boats, not at all, only that they were somehow meant for me, with their peeling marine varnish and their worm-eaten wood.  They are mine.  They called to me, and I followed, and they are mine.

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1 comment
  1. Lauren said:

    I love these stories. Also, for reasons that aren’t clear even to me, I have always really enjoyed (perhaps a disproportionate amount) descriptions of farm meals and was very happy to encounter one in this story.

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