Frances Ruhlen McConnel The 2River View, 6.2 (Winter 2002)

In August Heat

He leans over the bunk railing to say
if she tells he will hate her forever.
Over her head, his weight sags down the springs.
It is hot already. Outside, Father rustles
through bean rows. Is it beans he is plucking
or just crab grass? She loves gathering,
but loathes chopping weeds, as do they all,
his rebel band, who, in spite of himself,
have their own tastes and beliefs,
their own bravado laws. Still, he will be in soon
to shake them from their damp sheets.

The air buzzes with the smell of bacon.
Their mother will be barefoot in the kitchen,
boyishly thin in shorts and bandana halter,
the caps of her shoulders freckled and peeling.
No one else is like her, who loves them no matter what—
so that you must protect her from what.

Of course, the girl would not run to their mother.
Yet she can not relent, though she misses already
those weeks of the boy’s wheedling attention.
But her white hips at the last moment pulled back
from his whiter face. He screamed that she’d tricked him.
But there was only the fear even young girls learn to embrace
like a shining hero. Though, once in an alley,

he stood between her and a flat-eared,
hissing tom-cat. Then, he was five.
Now the soft mass of his curls wrenches
as he leans, almost in supplication,
over the rail above her, but all she sees
in his eyes is a brutal and banishing light.

Or is it only a reflection of what she feels well up
inside? Brutal because turning against him
is turning against herself, herself loved,
no matter how or why. This act will divide her,
as she will divide herself over and over,
rejecting lovers or being rejected, and she
will never know for certain which is which.

She’d rather reach up and tug that sleepy
lock of his hair, and say, all right, love me
instead. And maybe he’d play along,
tapping lightly with his finger on her nose.
But how swiftly and gracefully he can give
Indian burns! She will never again threaten
to tell, though there are other ways of betrayal—
such as offering yourself when you’re not
free to be offered, or offering yourself
to someone not your own. I don’t mean she sees
all this from the bottom bunk with the smell
of his bed-things enveloping her.
She sees only a blur of what hasn’t happened,
yet, but she feels the jolt of her own heartbeat
and a bitterness in her mouth,
that in raising a bluff he dare not call,
she must offer the daggers
they will look for in each other’s eyes.

He is the first lover she will hold
tenderly in absentia, the first ache
where love is more loss than promise,
as she steels herself down to her deepest
muscle, refusing to take back the threat.
Though, outside, crickets and katydids
are singing and the fields burn
with the rapturous smell of wild grain.

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2River All is well.