A winter sky like sheets of linen
lit by pallid, dimming candlelight,
the wooly clouds gauzy and thin when
the sun descends, a wan, whisk-whipped white
fractured by the barren, black branches
of the old crooked, wind-shaken oak
and the cold evening light that blanches
the distant knobs, while the wispy smoke
slithers serpentinely all across
fields jagged with broken stalks of corn
now harvested and sold at a loss
for those whose labors have thereby borne
but a decrepit bloodline and name,
and the colonial house of brick
standing upright, despite ancient shame
and the tottering wood, rick to rick—
bitter wormwood and ant-eaten oaks
which, when burned, burns also in its turn
the noses of those who gather close
by the hearth, husband and wife, who learn
of cold, silent days that lay between
man and woman and marriage ideals,
sitting in rockers to set a scene
of resentment…pride…contrary wills.
She, in bonnet and a homely frock,
and he, in coveralls and a cap,
both rocking, yet unwilling to talk—
as settled as the quilt on her lap.
A bitter winter crouches outside
like a demon haunting a doorstep
whose whispers come both cruel and snide
to chafe raw at their throats, like the strep;
an itch at first, then a burning pain,
like sharp caustic swirling in the throat,
blazing as a sharply bitter bane,
his voice as gruff as a billy goat.
“It’s a damn cold winter,” he remarks,
snorting, then hacking from the black smoke
pluming from the kindling as it sparks
to breathe a stuffy fragrance to choke
the stuffy room, and its occupants.
He frowns, staring at the sullen fire
as though one of his stamped documents
for a bank account soon to expire.
The backdoor bangs loudly down the hall
and a chilly breeze swirls its way through
like a lost dog returning at call
from an outing down the avenue.
“Damn that backdoor!” the old man exclaims,
glaring at his wife and at the door.
She’s hard of hearing, or so she claims,
and continues knitting, as before.
The door bangs and bangs, the wind blowing
past his neck, chill on his sallow skin;
and though the hearth is warmly glowing,
his bones are chilled as he thinks back when
they had first met, and he had fought hard
to win her heart from her first husband,
sneaking to this house, (snow in the yard),
and through the backdoor, where he was shunned
only once— never more—for he won
her while her first husband was away
each day for two months, dusk until dawn,
till she divorced and married—same day.
But her exhusband took it to heart
and the divorce knotted itself tight
around his neck. “Till death do us part.”
He hanged himself on their wedding night.
But how many men came here, calling,
when he, too, worked at the factory?
Adultery is not a small thing
done and then gone: it’s refractory.
Even now he wonders about men
who may have come in through that backdoor,
feeling cold as the ghosts all walk in
with the wintry breeze from the wild moor.
For a door could have opened again
on one of his own many workdays,
footprints covered in fresh white snow when
she succumbed to one more nymphal craze.
She was once a looker in her day,
but now—sixty-odd—she looks like most,
which is to say, wrinkled, fat, and gray:
old, old, old, soon to give up the ghost.
“I said you need to shut that back-door!”
he shouts at her, his red face a scowl.
She looks up at him from her frayed chore
while the December winds hiss and howl.
“If you’d fix it good,” she says, “you’d never
have to worry about that door none.”
Glowering, he thinks of how clever
women are— too clever to be done.
Meanwhile the demon is whispering,
its cold breath whirling within his ear,
telling him he reminds of a king
whose horned crown was but a cuckold’s fear,
for throughout his kingdom it was known
his wife had slept with many others,
and though he sat upon a great throne
his bed belonged to his wife’s lovers.
Grumbling, he rises up from his chair
and walks to the chilly old bedroom,
shuddering with the cold gusts of air
and contemplating the coming gloom.
He has always kept a pail of nails
and a hammer underneath the bed,
and as he recalls the sound of bells
at the church where they wished to be wed
he drives the point into stubborn wood
to nail shut that door against the air.
He says, “I’m goin’ to fix it good.”
and, hammer raised, walks toward her chair…