Joseph C. Welsko
I’ve watched this road freeze and melt over the winters and springs, but this
year’s frost is deep and hard, down to the roots connecting everything, and
the sun can hardly penetrate it, though I can’t be kept from this way for long.
I walk this trail because its forests need a friend from the other side, hands to
care and to keep, eyes and ears to listen and to remember, and as I walk, all day,
in every undergrown corner, I stumble upon rotting, oozing stories and belongings
that litter the grounds and trees, from rusted bikes and lunchboxes to blown tires
and various, stiffened aluminum wrappers breaking through the bramble, tightly
cocooning the slender wintertime branches of the few elms and willows beyond
the oaks, and polka-dotting the evergreens and the stumps where they once stood.
I go to strip all of it away, but an old flag catches my eye, near the end and distinct
in the thicket: a tree wrapped in stars and stripes, a tree half-spangled in a flag
of what is and what used to be.
It seems it’s been left here for me, left in pieces for me to bury along this path,
for no one and for nothing but a silent respect cut to shreds on the gray wind, cut
to shreds against the tangle of trash and sharp clutter along the path, and cut to
shreds because someone hung it too high and open in one of these ancient trees.
It’s fallen to a lower branch, little else but tattered and sad scraps dangling, and
rests against the tree’s fat trunk, but it seems to be enough to say a few words as
night falls up in the clouds, in the graveyards along this worn, oak-lined path, and
through the wailing, biting snow—but there’s a bitterness to this abandonment.
While the moon is nothing but crooked lines of light through the jagged canopy,
the permafrost is breathing into my boots, the brooks are all freezing over, and the
breath sputtering before me is thicker than the nighttime fog—and here lies this flag,
like a broken king atop his mound of garbage, laying claim to the last holdout after
filling it with metal death and plastic disease.
The flag won’t come loose from the ice and dead bark, and now I stand before it like
a man in enemy territory, one given to walking this path and always feeling for a
change of season, always searching for the grass beneath the winter snow and the
autumn leaves, but it’s still so cold even with this sweat, even with these tears.
The ground is packed hard and isn’t ours any longer, and it’s still too soon or not
enough to speak with these ashes in my mouth, with the wind-driven snow crackling
in my face and ears, and with these cool-cracked hands over my eyes and heart.
Where the muddy river used to run clear for a few moments up in the white-capped
mountains on the bleary edge of smoking towns that twitch and expand, past the
gutted, dilapidated cabins and beyond where the train tracks end, between these
country fences, and slithering between the rows of dead ivy and twisted logs—
I thought I had gone far enough from the expanse, but this tree is branded, and
this stolen land is stolen again.
Joe Welsko is a senior Secondary English Education major at Moravian College who enjoys reading and writing poetry, and who will bring creative writing and sustainability into his future classroom.