Houseguest

In this house, you have a mound of fallen antlers
beneath an Ansel Adams window.
As a child, I used to collect birds’ nests,
but they were still in their trees.
In winter, while an icy wind blew against the trees’ trunks,
I’d risk climbing the brittle branches, all in motion,
to gather the empty nests, placing them
in a mound such as yours.

Your tentative house balances on a crest
above a divide—cut by sinuous creeks.
Buffeted by winds and weather
yet tucked away in care and whether,
the house is filled with gifts from friends and former loves:
paintings, pottery, architectural proofs,
Kachina dolls, Navajo rugs, a bedspread,
photographs in diploma frames, a stuffed
pheasant hung like an autumnal cross.
Perhaps some antlers—pre-chandelier --
are gifts from more than deer.

Yesterday I climbed the mountain behind your clay-colored house
alone— except for a deer whose path
I followed through rocks and scrub and stubborn snow.
He would swerve ahead of me, stand above me,
look back and stare.
I stared back until my vision blurred with grief.

Up a steep embankment
that somehow never crumbled behind him,
avoiding the groan of unsteady stones
above the dark, sulfurous underground,
he’d bound ahead like a huge hare.
I’d feel him looking down at me --
staring from an outcrop, staring
in endless silence, as if tonight the sun would not soon set.

We played this unexpected game three times,
as if it were an accident, for if we stared too long
one of us would inexorably lunge ahead.
Yet neither he nor I were pursuers.

Later I spied him with three other deer.
All four lurched—sunlit silence leaping --
and I knew, as clear as fate,
I would not encounter him again.
Yet his sureness—no plunging in leftover snow --
guided me up Williams Mountain,
while the long, plaintive notes of the coyote
and the rough chortle of the crow
floated along the valley below.

The next day someone spotted a mountain lion
roaming a mile away.

II
I, aware of being a solitary houseguest,
offer you this poem in New York --
these words that have hesitated,
having alighted for awhile,
staring at you until you approach.

Add them to yourf collection of lost antlers
and I’ll add them to my mound of deserted nests,
and we’ll move backward in time
to the evening we first recognized each other,
and waved forlornly --
like children, newly absent from God.

by Jane Shaffer on Saturday, December 12, 2009

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