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deciphering the alphabet :: francine sterle

by on February 6, 2016

Winter advances
leaving its white tracks
bounding over the hills
I climb each December
to get to the river
where velvety shrews,
voles and squirrels
crisscross in the snow,
their claw marks
reminding me of the exquisitely
complicated pattern
I watched an Ojibwe
bite into a birchbark.
(Art as old as the world,
the woman said to me.)

In the origin myth of Eskimos
the first children
sprouted from fertile soil
and, like tender plants,
stayed rooted there,
being nourished by the earth.
No one knows how one boy
and one girl grew into adults
able to walk into the world,
able to meet and marry.

Each tree
was a letter once.
Pagans
spelled out their secrets
by threading
the proper leaves
in proper order—
Birch tree, Heather leaf,
leaf of the Ash.
A language
you could hold in your hand.
Words that quivered,
turned color in the fall,
that could be taken back,
burned in regret.
Lonely winters
when there was nothing
to say.

From a north window,
the choked river,
a slippery crack of light.
Does my neighbor notice me
crouched down,
my bare fingers exploring
the deer tracks I’ve found,
some chips in the ice?
I wave once,
but she stares
absentmindedly into the cold.
Pure imitation.
The great bored glacier of her face.

How many have known
the endless emptiness
inside an ordered room?
How many, a silence
so profound, inside
and out?

I turn, startled,
as if someone
dogged my steps.
Nothing.
Midday sun
scatters down
among sapling ash.
At my feet, birdtracks
wherever I look.
The only ciphers of the day.
My footprints merge
with the ones laid down here,
my whole body,
heart, lung, muscle,
leaving its trace.

Everything that moves
leaves a story. No story
can exist by itself.

What am I
to the wolf and the rabbit and the fox?
To the songless birds
balancing on branches?
To the solitary pines
dipped in frost?

First the trough
where it plowed forward,
then the wide belly-slide
down the bank,
the musty scent-post,
the scat, the smooth hole
where the otter slipped
through a window in the ice.
Scattered all around,
a wolverine’s fresh tracks,
the slashes where its claws
raked as it slid to a stop.
Stiff gusts of wind
kick up around me.
Twigs and bits of debris
soon mar the tracks.
Before long, the sharp edges
will begin to slump.
By early next week,
everything will be erased,
the immaculate snow
unable to keep the shape
of a single creature.

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