a corn field faith
he found the fields and the rows between and the heart beat of the earth beating like a summer’s heat, a place called home, a house and a barn. the corn was late august tall and ready and he was just starting, just ending his sixth summer, just standing in hand me down shoes that were too big to run in. and he curled his toes and hung on and walked where they told him to walk. he could hear the corn into the midnight , after the texaco radio show, before the sandman and the dusty deaf of sleep. he could hear the corn whispering in the cool black, whispering something that was part of the air like dandelion heads or long off cathedral bells ringing. whispering tiny secrets in his little ear all summer and ever since.
and it started with an april faith, a green crawling from the ground, a thin spring beginning to begin. his father would watch the sky and walk the earth. and a time would come and he would come back with it, and a fist fixed with dirt and a hard eye and a nod and they would plant tomorrow. and the seed would make its promise and everyone would work all week from a new sun’s sliver to the night and its quick winter again. and with their prayers set in the earth they would wait and work the fields and the rows between and believe and nothing else. he chored his chores and did them, he went to the well and went to the well and went to the well and did what his small hands could do.
and his father went back to the mills in the city every after, after planting. he would hear his father’s truck in the early morning, above the corn’s din, before the sun sounded. he made steel there with fire and earth, the bones of a still young america. and he came home with both hands and a bent back and a weary and a wage on fridays and a thank the lord jesus christ and a republic steel every supper. his brothers were tall and hard like wires and did a man’s work. they stuck out from the earth like corn stalks themselves, their feet rooted deep in the dirt in the fields on the farm. his mother made big breakfasts of eggs and bacon and new bread and jam and coffee chirping on the high kitchen counter and dinners in brown bags and pies on the window sill and suppers waiting.
and his father would put his ear to the fields and listen to the late august. and a time would come and he would come back with it, and 6 ears of corn and a smile and a nod and they would pick tomorrow. and the corn would know and keep the seed’s word and everyone would work all week from the early promise of a sun until it fell and bled red into the dirt. and on the last day when the corn was sung they would go into town in the truck and everyone would get their own pint of ice cream. he would point chocolate with his little finger and remember to pick strawberry next year’s harvest. he always did. a slim wage for a summer’s labor, but they had nothing and broke their backs for what they got and something seems like a lot when there’s nothing else. they had a farm and a family and a second mortgage to cover the ‘34 drought. and they had a wish and a prayer and an american dream and a field of ripe corn waiting. a corn that stood out in the fields like one big god and the hand to make everything good or bad. and he listened and heard.
the fields breathed in, like some large animal he thought, and out again and spun the universe with one breath and born a storm. everything was rooted to the earth and this farm and grew from seeds and hard hands and god’s big dreams, even storms. and the storm came, the storms that always came with a late summer’s heat and a west wind. and it would test the fields and the rows between and a family’s fractured faith since a 1934. and he held to his bones like his father taught him and his father before that and never let his skin tell his frightened truth. the sky swelled, purpled and paused and finally stormed a storm. a storm that had watched and waited all summer and held its sharp tongue for the corn’s fall ready and reaping. it came like a fever, like a wild eyed hired hand and pushed the sky all the way to the ground. a prideful storm that broke free from god’s grip and the earth and tried the corn’s pride. and the corn bent until he thought it must break.
and his mother would pray to another mother, mary, and his father would polish his stare on a west window and wait for the storm to break like a bone. his brothers played cards, they always played cards and mumbled like grown men and held their eyes straight below their caps. he wondered if the corn would stand and if they’d get ice cream next week at the woolworth’s in town. and his father pressed his jaw to the moment and stood straight at the back porch screen door like the steel he made and wondered if they’d eat at all. simply willing the corn to stand like he would stand. and they prayed in their hearts and heads and waited like they always had, when its all you have. and they sharpened their resolve on a sleepless night like a sickle blade to a stone. and they prayed and waited and listened to the storm.
he layed down in his tiny skin, in his big bed and he held his little pillow head to the fields. and he waited for the corn to speak, but he only heard the storm and the rattle of his dreams and nothing more. whispers of his mother’s rosary down an upstairs hall. and he chanced his corn field faith on a god and a little lamby jesus just like his mother taught him and her mother before that. and he listened and learned.
and the corn stood like a christ against his cross and the storm bled into the earth and fed the fields with its fury and the rows between. and what it came to kill it only nutured. and the rain ran red and black again into the dirt rich with the storm, and the fields before, furrowed and left fallow and plowed under again, pregnant again with the corn and pieces of the sky and the fertile memory a farm family’s labor.
and he would point chocolate with his little finger and remember to pick strawberry next year’s harvest like he did every year, in a year, 1939.
(published in ZYZZYVA, Fall 2001)