Steve Fay

Guarding Plovers

One posts old women in the marsh to tend plovers; they cry into the wind with rusty voices and eventually get lost.
                                                                           — Sarah Kirsch, from Irrstern

Ill in pregnancy, what landscapes
fill her dreams, what searching?
She wanders barefoot through cordgrass
through sedges, through snarled
and rotting stems of errant lotus now
died out.  Here and there a sandbar,
an island of pebbles.  And hiding out
among the colored stones the plover eggs.

                                                In America, the killdeer was the plover
                                                she knew well.  She knew its cry, its broken-
                                                winged dance to lure the predator
                                                from its nest.  But this is some European
                                                cousin, living here, with eggs sought
                                                by collectors, or so she’s heard.
                                                Not knowing its dance or what it cries,
                                                she dreams herself its sole protector.

She is older by a decade in her dreams,
or sometimes two, and it has always been
so. And so she dresses like her mother’s
friends: dull-colored gingham aprons
and bright scarves to keep her hair from
flying in the wind.  No one asks her dream-
self where she goes, as she walks along
damp gravel toward nowhere they can see.

                                                On much higher ground to the south,
                                                drained by windmills, sits a peach
                                                orchard.  Once she met a love there,
                                                a woman with peach juice dripping from
                                                her chin.  She wanted, oh, how she
                                                wanted to walk through the tour group
                                                to lick it off.  She took that tour four times,
                                                just to get near enough to speak with her.

In some dreams she walks, in others
she becomes amphibian, swimming
deftly between the slick strands of plants,
ever beneath the surface of dark waters,
her red scarf becoming her billowing gills,
her apron, her cool white abdomen
filled with luminous eggs, her legs
shortened, her toes so delicately webbed.

                                                Some nights she wanders aimlessly,
                                                a traveler stitching her way northward
                                                across the trembling soils.  Each
                                                sheep flock parting into crescents as she
                                                passes through.  Orion hanging like
                                                a sword in the sky.  She tries to escape,
                                                waking late to sun munching hoarfrost
                                                in the meadow outside her window.

She drives to the grassy seawall holding
back the tides, to watch the Holstein
cows kneeling down to rest.  An old-timer
totters slowly behind his beagle.  A gardener
collects dark earth from molehills, for
pot-starting her vegetables.  The marshes begin
there, only meters from the source of the
saltwater mists always spilling over them.

                                                And what of the gulls and stolid crows,
                                                which circle in her dreams?  She
                                                forgets to bring a stick to wave in threat
                                                against them.  And so she shrieks
                                                like a red-tailed hawk, what should be
                                                a fright to these old-world birds.  Whirl
                                                away or die, you egg-pilferers, she cries,
                                                human egg-shell collectors, too!

And so she dreams of giving birth beneath
marsh waters, but not a string of salamander
eggs as might have been.  Instead, a half-
grown, sparrow-voiced child, she clothes in
pondweeds to hide its discrepancy.  What
am I, Mother? it asks in pidgin-Danish.
Call yourself Immigrant, her hawk-voice
cries.  You are a newcomer to this land.

In Dreamers’ Dreams

In his dream, when he gets to her room in the hospital, it looks like she might not be fully covered, so he calls for the nurse to check on her and fix her blankets before he goes in.  In her dream, he’s gotten very old, now walks with a cane, sometimes getting near falling.  He needs a walker, but never would use one.  While some go to shorelines to feed bread to geese, he strolls through his neighborhood throwing strawberries to the dogs.  She makes food for people: beggars brought home to the family table, the homeless at the soup kitchen.  Try to visit her, without her making you something to eat.

Theirs is a city on a river one day, but on a big lake the next.  One day, sea-going freighters tie up in the harbor, but the next, the largest craft is a pontoon boat with outboard motors.  He hadn’t liked it much, the week he had to climb the eight flights of stairs to his 2-room apartment, because the local elevator repairman was off fishing.  She had started to think about coloring her own hair.  Getting her roots touched up was becoming too expensive.  But how to touch up her wrinkles?

The river has otters.  The big lake, bright green dolphins.  The skies of that city can turn cinnamon brown at dusk.  The rain feels like velvet to old people who live there, but the young move away to drier places.  He listens to his shortwave late into the night.  He’s tried to learn Spanish for the songs on his favorite station.  He’s tried to learn Bulgarian for a newscast which comes in well.  He doesn’t know it’s Serbian news.  She was widowed in Peru, long before she moved to this city.  She raised a daughter here, and buried a mother. She prays fervently at Mass each week, but returns to her bungalow empty of spirit.

It is important to know, here, that the two of them never meet.  But that has not prevented each one from dreaming of the other.  Feeling all the while that the other is a long time love, or friend, or some relation—something never clarified in any of those years of dreams.

In her dream, she takes a class, learning how to steady him, to lever him slowly to his feet, without hurting herself, when he inevitably falls. In his dream, he hurries into her hospital room with pink chrysanthemums, and finds her sleeping, her gown askew, one breast uncovered.  He doesn’t buzz for a nurse this time, but covers her chrysanthemum with those he brought. He gently adjusts the fabric himself, then pulls a chair up to her bed.  And, after a moment, he begins to whisper—to her sleep—the story of his day.

Steve Fay

Steve Fay’s work has recently appeared in Comstock Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Menacing Hedge, Spoon River Poetry Review, Stone Poetry Quarterly, Temenos, Third Wednesday, and TriQuarterly. His collection — what nature: Poems — was published by Northwestern University Press in 1998. He lives in Fulton County, Illinois.