Story Poem

Hawkbill Knife

By Jared Carter

Hawkbill Knife

We had driven all morning on the back roads,
my father and I, into those dense green hills,
all that way just to fix a leak on the roof 
of the old lodge hall – the patched-up building
where the artist kept a studio during the war,
where his widow still came to stay each summer
till Labour Day, sleeping on a cot in the back room,
heating cans of soup on a single hotplate,
selling a pastel now and then to a passerby.

It would be my grandmother's annual visit
to see her only sister-in-law, the two of them
entirely unalike – one from a small town,
the other from the city – but cordial, since
both had known the same man, both lived with him
for a few years, one early in life, one late.
She would be with us in the cab of the pickup,
dozing in the heat, leaning forward, catching
herself, peering out at the unfamiliar hills.

The old building – two stories, square-fronted,
white clapboard with an elaborate cornice –
faced east across a broad lawn always dusky
in the shade of great towering, arching elms.
Along the stones of the foundation, on steps
leading to the front door, in that rare cool
of high summer, a brindled tomcat belonging
to one of the neighbours would be stretched out, 
too drowsy to slink away when we pulled up.

A cast-iron pump stood anchored in a square
of limestone in the yard. We leaned to wash
our hands and faces, then took the tin cup
and drank. Aunt Carolyn would be talking
to Effie, then to my father, telling him
about the leak, how the man tending the yard
was not to be trusted. I worked the handle
and watched water cascading over the stone,
glistening and disappearing in the grass.

The two of them set out tea in a room filled
with unframed paintings and relics of Paris.
My father brought the bucket of pitch; I lugged
the roll of tarpaper. Upstairs, we followed
the hall to the roof ladder. I went first,
feeling ahead in the gloom, the thick heat,
reaching to push against the rough boards
until the hatch gave way. Fresh air swirled
all around me as I struggled into the light.

We were there, in the stillness, high above
everything else in town, looking out and down
through a pale scrim of leaves – at the roof
of the Baptist Church, the library on the corner,
the barbershop in the red-brick building,
the cars parked along the courthouse square.
I gazed out at the hills surrounding the town
while my father took a jackknife and probed
to find the roof's bad places. He scraped
at beads of tar, and whistled at the damage.

He sat back on his heels. Then he called to me,
fished around for a dollar bill, and explained
he wanted me to go to the hardware store
on the main street, and tell the old man there
I needed to buy “a hawkbill knife.” Years later
I would learn it was simply a roofer's knife
with a short curved blade, but then I had only
the strange name he had given me, and the dollar
clutched in my hand as I climbed down the ladder.

Since then, too, I have seen that kind of knife
sharpened and resharpened again and again
by roofers, by those who work high in the air
with hot pitch, with the steamy black smell
of tar rising all around them, the ropes caked
and stiff, everything sticky to the touch –
I have seen such knives filed to the nub,
handles wound with tape, hawkbills worn flat,
seen them thrown away, useless, in the street.

And could I have looked out far enough over
those quiet houses, beyond those green hills,
I might have seen how everything in that town
would be worn away too, would pour glistening
over the smooth ledge of time – the elm trees
burnished by the wind, the huge dim interior
of that building, the two old ladies talking,
the cat on the doorstep – all that would dwindle
and fade, as though falling down a deep chasm.

Part of me did know: had glimpsed, in drawings
thumbtacked to the walls of the meeting room
on the second floor, scenes of a vanished world.
Lacking the money for canvas, for oil paints,
how many times had he gone out to sketch
young girls at their sewing machines, old men
trundling carts, sidewalks crowded with menders,
fixers, buyers hurrying along and yet caught,
saved for an instant, by his smooth-flowing hand?

What held them up could yet hold me. August,
nineteen forty-eight: I was nine years old.
My father had given me a dollar to spend
and waited for me to return. I came out 
onto the walk, under the canopy of trees,
sunlight dappling the grass, cicadas pulsing
all around me.  At the pump I filled the cup
to overflowing, drank its coldness, then walked
on toward the square, to buy a hawkbill knife.

(First published in Sandscript)

Jared Carter’s most recent collection, The Land Itself, is from Monongahela Books in West Virginia. His Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems, with an introduction by Ted Kooser, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. A recipient of several literary awards and fellowships, Carter is from the state of Indiana in the U.S.



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