The Beard

I found it while culling old photos
that no one need keep — nor even see —
once I’m gone. It shows dark-haired me,
clear-eyed, smiling, hopeful, happy me.
At least I think it might be me,
despite that captured joy and smoothness.
The other reason I’m somewhat unsure of
the subject’s identity is because
the young fellow in these photos has
longish hair and a pretty nice beard.
A full beard, on a face shining with optimism,
even if it is out-of-focus.
I placed the photo in the bottom
of a shoebox in the closet with
the full-length mirror on the door.
The mirror that shows the image of
the silver-haired guy whose mouth sags
on the left side when he attempts to smile,
as if he’s afraid his face might slough off
the front of his head if he gave in
to full expressions of joy.
That’s the mirror where I stare into
the pair of burrows where nest the windows
of my soul. Deep within, it’s like I
can see inside the shoebox behind the door.
I still wonder what happened to that youngster,
but I at least know I can still find him.

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Like Sun Flashing Upon the Mohawk

It was the smell that caught my attention first.

Not the usual smell of woodsmoke you’d expect from a farm settlement back along the Hudson. Nor the aroma of your mum’s cooking or baking on the breeze. No, this was an earthier smell, more like burnt meat, a grease fire and boiled out vegetable pots. This was the Mohawk town called Teatontaloga.

Strange how the longer I kneeled there in the hills above the north shore of the Mohawks’ River among the hemlock, hickory and spruce, the less offensive the smell became, tempered, as it were, by the scent of nature. I almost felt like dozing in this odd perfume, transfixed by the sparkle of the sun on the river.

But I could not afford the time to sleep. I had been sent out here to scout for the German colonists on their way up the Hudson with designs on settling land patents purchased from the old Dutch burghers in Albany. Traveling through the valley, for the past six days, keeping a cold camp, always alert lest I run across the trail of some Mohawk hunting party, I never allowed myself to sleep more than a few minutes at a time.

One more look at the sun flashing on the mouth of Schoharie Creek joining the river and I was ready to go. I’d seen what I needed to see. Then came that one big flash.

I awoke not feeling like I’d slept, but more like a a trussed up Christmas goose that had been dragged behind a wagon on Albany’s cobblestone main street. It was dark and smoky.  That smell I’d discovered from the hill above the river was stronger than ever and there was no forest to soften it. A dog growled next to me when I stirred.

“Finally awake I see,” said a voice in perfect English, if a Yorkshireman’s accent could be called perfect.

“What happened to me? Where am I? Who in the name of God are you?” I said, my head dully aching except where I imagine a rifle butt sparked the big flash then darkness.

“I should think what happened would be quite evident, young scout. I suspect you know where you are, as well. As to who I am, my Kanien’kéha family here call me Karawase, their word for ‘A New Way’.” Who I was back in Sheffield doesn’t much matter anymore,” the silhouette outlined by the glowing fire said.

“What do they plan to do with me?” I said.

“First, you are lucky to be alive to ask that question. Secondly, that is still being debated. Before the clan leaders make any decision on that, they want me to find out what you’re doing here,” Karawase said. “I suspect it might be something of the nefarious ilk, knowing my greedy and unconscionable English brethren as I do.”

“You appear to be an educated man, sir. I would hope that we could reach an understanding that the people who sent me here to scout this country would be more than willing to parley with your leaders to reach an accommodation in terms of…”

“Stealing their ancestral homes? I don’t believe that is possible, young scout. By the by, youngster, what is you’re name?” Karawase said, edging closer to me so finally I could see his features.

“My name is Jacob Brown. Actually, Jacob Braun. But since the Huron killed my Papa, my mother went back to her English roots and translated it.”

“I see. You’re also a man of two camps.”

“I suppose you could say that. But, my two camps aren’t making war against one another,” I replied.

“Not yet. But they will. It’s the way of the world, young Jacob Brown,” Karawase said, rubbing his fingers on a new tattoo he sported on his cheek. “So you’re representing English or German interests?”

“German. Families of Palatinites are coming upriver to Albany, looking to establish homes out here in these valleys. And they would like to make sure they can do that, raise their crops and families, without having to fear attacks from your people,” I said, figuring my recognizing his current status might soften him to my plight.

“It’s true that some of my people have taken a shine to the English trade representative, Mister Johnson. Or, should I say, he has taken a shine to us. But these Dutchman you describe will only foul our rivers and streams with their hogs and cattle, use up the land with their constant planting, never letting our Mother rest from her labors of feeding the people.”

“Not if I can spell out terms that the Mohawk can make, allowing them to come here and live in peace. Their coming here is a definite thing. The peace will be up to you.”

“That is quite true, Jacob Brown. For we are a great people, the Guardians of the Eastern Door of the Five Nations. It is our place to see that your western-advancing floods do not drown us with their foul smelling beasts and fouler smelling progeny.”

The entrance to the longhouse opened and a tall, lean man entered. He walked toward Karawase, ignoring my bound-up form on the mat next to the fire. He spoke softly but forcefully to Karawase, who replied in kind. This surprised me, for I never expected a white man to be so familiar with the savage red man.

Karawase leaned down after the man left, and said, “My brother, the son of my Kanien’kéha mother, asked me what we have been discussing. I told him what you told me and he would like to see you roasted over coals and fed to the dogs. Strictly as a means of ensuring you not only return to Albany with your scouting report, but also to ensure your spirit never leaves this place, as well.”

His words turned my empty stomach into knots. I had already seen what the Abenaki and Seneca could do to a man, his color notwithstanding. I had also seen what the English could do to Delaware, Huron and even the unfortunate Mohawk who crossed the trail the whites were determined to own, as well as the hectares on both sides of it for miles.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Karawase.  You could be the man who helps the Mohawk become the wealthiest of the Five Nations, accepting tribute from the Palatinites for the meager amounts of land they need for their farms. They truck in fine silver and fabrics from Europe. The guns they make are legendary for their small size but powerful kick. Perfect for your people to defend, if not expand their reach to the south and west.”

“Jacob Brown, we can take those treasures from your Dutchman any time we have a mind to. We are not only Kanien’kéha, which you call Mohawk, but one of a confederacy of five nations that rule the lands from the north river you call Hudson’s to the biggest of the western lakes, from the northern mountains to the lands of the Cherokee. We are stewards of this country, given that charge by the Creator himself. We have never been defeated and never will, save for if one of our own nations aligns against us. And why would they do that? They wouldn’t. So, you Jacob Brown, man of two camps, I would prepare to see the light of the Creator this day. You seem to be a brave boy, but my brother has broken brave men many times. He is a fearsome warrior. I will ask him if I may kill you before he lets you suffer. You seem a nice enough chap,” Karawase said. And then he left the longhouse, the dog following him.

I looked down the smoky, dim length of the longhouse, realizing that the last smell I would inhale on this earth was the one that drew me to where I would die. I was both intrigued and repulsed that I would soon be another source of that burnt meat smell. I felt just the same about how that German silver waiting for me back in Albany. How it more than likely would end up dangling from the ear of some Mohawk warrior. Or it could be pounded and shaped and used to decorate the fine Jaeger rifle he took from its Palatine owner.

If I was to fail in my mission, as I indeed had, I was happy for the promise of Karawase to dispatch me before I succumbed to the fires of hell on earth. I wondered if I would be able to see the flashes of light on the river once more before I went before the light of the Lord’s judgment.

Karawase threw aside the cover of the longhouse entrance and stood in the doorway, the light of dawn surrounding him like he was a saint, instead of a traitor to his people, which is what I imagined was why he lived among and abetted such savages that would cook a man for looking at where they lived.

“I have spoken with the elders and the old mothers who hold sway over the clans. They have decided you will not die the slow death my brother spoke so stridently for. At my claim for leniency, they wish to see you run through a long gauntlet from the center of the village and the river,” Karawase said. “Reach the river and you may float back to Albany.”

“This is good news,” I said.

“Depends on how quick and shifty you are, Jacob Brown. By my eye, the distance between here and the river is twenty rods if an inch. Easily half a furrow-long,” Karawase said.

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Aye, and a chance is all ye have.”

“When do I begin?”

“I’d say when the sun clears the hills to the east. Perhaps another hour or so.”

“I’ll be ready.”

That hour passed and I could hear a crowd milling, laughing, shouting outside the longhouse. Karawase and his brother entered and loosed my bindings, setting me on my feet for the first time since someone, I imagine Karawase, brought that musket butt down upon my head.

The crowd of people had strung themselves out in two lines snaking from the center of the village to the shore. I could not see the river from where I stood, nor would I until I made it to nearly the end of the gauntlet. If I made it.

“Are you ready, Jacob Brown?” Karawase said above the din of warriors hooting, women keening and youngsters laughing. All but the men were carrying switches of birch or elm. The men and older boys had something more resembling weapons, clubs or the like.

“I don’t expect I’d better not be ready, Karawase. I should thank you for saving me from the fire.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure this is going to have any better ending, Jacob Brown.”

“If I may, could you tell me what your name was before you became one of these barbarians?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, Jacob Brown.”

“Please. In case we don’t have another chance to talk.”

“You might not believe me, but it was Brown, Simon Brown. Now prepare yourself, boy. My brother and I will be waiting at the far end to see you make it to the river. Godspeed, Jacob Brown,” the man called Karawase said.

“I will, Simon. I will.”

And then he was gone. Two warriors ripped off my shirt, took my arms and stood me between the long lines of impatient savages looking to mete out their worst punishment on the white man who represented all the whites encroaching on their country. They didn’t know I was but one drop in an ocean whose tide was coming in from the Atlantic.

“Kanónhsa raksà:ʼa,” the biggest one grunted, and pushed me so hard I fell to the ground between the first couple of pairs on my run. They were older women with switches and they hit me with a fury of decades of pent-up anger. I rose to my feet and grabbed one of the switches and lunged forward, using the slender branch as one might a sword in warding off the cutting blows of the women and children.

My skin was aflame with small welts and scratches, but I was still alive. Up ahead, I could see I was coming to the older boys and men, who were waiting with angry faces and hooting and howling in such a frightening manner I almost spoiled myself. But I plunged into their forest of branches and clubs.

I whipped my switch in the face of one of the boys and grabbed his club and swung it wildly around me to again deflect the worst of the blows. By now, my lungs were burning, as I had run a long way as fast as I could, bouncing from one side of the gauntlet to the other. My legs felt like tree trunks and I could taste blood. From where I did not know.

I looked up and could see the end of the lines ahead. And there was the Mohawk. It sparkled like German silver and I had to fight to maintain my composure and best defensive parries and feints. I held off one warrior’s blow with my club, but felt the sting of a blade on my back from another. I turned for an instant and caught him a blow on the arm, whereupon his knife bounded to the ground ahead of me.

I ran best I could and picked it up and fought my way to the very last six men on the end of the line. Four of them crowded me and I battled my way through them and ran into Karawase’s brother, standing there in my path to the river.

The sun had climbed well above the hills now. I could feel it on my face. I could smell the mud and water waiting behind the savage in front of me. To my left, I saw Karawase, a club resting in his crossed arms. I dove at his brother, screaming like I was one of the Mohawks now. Perhaps this is how Simon Brown became Karawase. I’ll never know.

I charged the final warrior, as quickly as a desperate man could. I must have surprised him, because I got close to his body and his club came down dully on my back. I slashed his ribs with the knife and he went down, the smell of him, that same earthy smell from… Was it only day before yesterday?

I could see the river only a few yards away, see the sunlight flash in my eyes. I half-ran, half-staggered to its muddy margins. The sun above glared in my eyes and the moist smell of the Mohawk spoke of escape.

From the corner of my eye, I saw an Indian, a familiar form, rush toward me, his club raised above his head. The world suddenly lit up around me like a lightning flash. Then came the feeling of water on my face, beautiful, cool, like meine Mutter’s hands after drawing it from the creek called the Krum Kill.

A Big Cup of Joe

I was sitting in a Starbucks in Albany, just hanging out and sipping my coffee for a change, rather than running out to the car in the early morning summer rainstorm, only to run someplace else, while gulping down all my venti Caffe Verona before I got to wherever that was. But not this day. I decided to sip at today, to savor its flavor, unhurriedly swishing it around my mind to parse its qualities and nuance instead of tipping it down my throat, like I was tossing it down a drain. Rather than tighten my focus to the narrow-gauge tunnel of vision before me and the compact thought of my present obsession, I opted to absorb the entire room before me from the chair by the door. I noticed the longer hair and scruffy beards of the university students that reminded me of myself from four decades before and wondered what next. Patched bell-bottoms? I looked into the faces of the coeds to discern their thoughts and dreams, rather than just peripherally noticing only their legs as I normally would while speeding out the door while focused on the steam and splash emanating from my cup’s white plastic top. They’re so young, I thought, so self-absorbed, so locked on what’s in the front of the line inside themselves while the world whooshes by around them. At a table in the far corner, a quintet of men about my age held a raucous conversation about politics, the Yankees and the weather, punctuated with thunderous laughs. They drew side-eyes and smirks from the students as they looked up from viewing their own worlds through the glowing windows most held in one hand while sucking down some frothy-topped espresso concoction in the other. I typed a note of this dichotomy on the electronic mirror that sat on my lap reflecting my own thoughts. I turned it off, slapped closed its flap and carried the rest of my still more-than-warm coffee out to the car, where I began sucking it into the gut that told me I really didn’t quite belong with either of the tribes with whom that morning I’d shared breathing in the aroma of roasted Arabica, fresh perfume and carpe diem. The rain had stopped and I started the engine, tucked my cup in its center console nest, pulled out of the parking lot, my eyes seeing little more than that framed by the windshield and my mind viewing more than the traffic around me. I took one long final pull on my Caffe Verona and tossed the cup of knowledge on the floor behind me with the others lying there since Monday. Today, I’d slowly consumed more of the world around me than usual and it tasted of sweet memory, bitter realization and the tempering half-and-half of middle age. I figured it would keep me going until 10:00.

Total Eclipse

How dark it became when
the shadow fell between us,
some celestial body or karma
casting a silhouette that’s yet
to find another path.
That’s how it goes when we
stand still and never try
to find the light once shared.
I wonder if what illuminated us
as we sailed through the void
was really just the twilight margin
between shadow and light
from which only a step—
false or otherwise—would cast us
both where sight of neither of us exists.
I used to ponder who would be
the first to stumble back
to the relative warmth
of that old penumbral frontier.
I don’t anymore.
This eclipse is total and I
dare not look at that space
where a face used to reside,
unless it’s total blindness
I’m really looking for.

A roll-out-of-bed-and-just-write no-subtext ramble. Morning mush. You can go back under the covers to the warm, safe…and dark…now.

Ramble Tamble #1

When you’re in the middle of it, living and learning, learning about living, living as a means of learning, you don’t notice how you might be different from (or the same as) some guys across the ocean or across the room. You don’t notice much about anything but what’s inside the three inches of air surrounding your body.

They are Them, There, Then. You are You, Here, Now. Context is but a ghost, barely a specter of a concept through which you  your place in a wider world. You accept ideas, tenets, the virtual castle walls within which you secure your position as the center of the Universe. You don’t question. God just IS, He is a He and you need to toe his line in order to win the lovely parting gifts they hand you for completing the Home version of this dicey Game of Life.

The other day, I asked myself not only who I am, but what, forcing myself to look beyond myself as this sack of meat, its spark of intellectual and essential energy and the possessor of opposing thumbs that answers to Joseph, Joe, Joey and any of a hundred or so discrete alphanumeric identifiers that differentiate me from you. And you and you, as well.

I saw such a small thing, a cluster of cells both good and ill, beneficial and malignant, functional and inert, held modestly upright by some universally accepted beliefs that inherently make me superior to so much of the rest of the inhabitants of this blue marble upon which we stand as it falls, rises, or circles in the vastness of the Universe.

And so much of what I see is just a matter of dumb luck, some bit of kismet that Valentine met Maria and Patrick loved Lizzy and they all somehow decided to leave their homes in Europe to come to this coast-to-coast set of geographic coordinates that may make this the most varied and valuable piece of real estate on the planet. They came to this place where people can be free to become the monarchs of their own existence. Here in this nation established upon the premise that all men are created equal.

Except, of course, if you were on the wrong end of our “peculiar institution,” where white men owned black men who did the physical labor that either built or buttressed the Whites’ socioeconomic standing. And that sin was committed even in my hometown, tucked up here in the upper right corner of your map, which is the oldest chartered municipality in the country.

And also except if you were a member of the class of original inhabitants of this breadth of the continent. Then you were crushed in the essentially forgotten, if considered at all, dirty little secret of American’s Manifest Destiny, which included eviction, subjugation, military intimidation, interdiction and an open-air type of incarceration. And, quite often, our Euro-America’s God-blessed version of the final solution to the “Indian problem,” eradication.

Which brings us rambling back to my original premise. When you are so busy trying to make it from First to Twelfth Grade, from freshly minted believer to elder keeper of whatever Word you follow, from allowance grabber to worker bee and then retirement check-cashing senior, you don’t think of these things. You pretty much have to live within your insulated little castle keep, those walls of ideas and ideals I spoke of before.

It’s human nature. Self-preservation, self-centeredness, selfishness, maybe even a selective selflessness, draw blinders around us from which we might occasionally sneak a peek outside ourselves. Then we pull our heads back within the silken bonds of our own spiritual and intellectual cells. There in the comforting darkness we see house-of-mirrors reflections of ourselves, warm and fuzzy, clean and bright, dark and angry, volatile and violent. And we accept them or reject them with but a blink, a wink or a meditative, prayerful closing of the eyes.

Please forgive me this tedious ramble. I’ve been reading again, something I haven’t done as much as when I was younger. Back then it was hardcore youthful inquisitiveness, feeding the insatiable intellectual beast as much trivia, possibly necessary minutiae and winning team history it could take. Now, it’s my own version of sticking this silver-pated gourd out of the dusty crust of virtual Hesch topography to see what I missed. In my old age I’ve become another type of Self-something. Self-aware. It’s embarrassing and painful, yet somehow freeing.

I see the mistakes, poor judgments and failures I’ve made. I see the victories, loves and lucky guesses, too. On electronic and physical pages I’ve cast them out there like stars across a desert sky. And now I see how they tell stories and give necessary direction, even if I have almost reached my ultimate destination.

I just thought I’d pass this on to you, since you’re traveling that way, too. Slán abhaile.  Auf wiedersehen.  Safe travels.  Ramble Tamble. Down the road I go.

This started its life as a poem, then grew like some good ol’ southern kudzu, spilling all aroun d the page, seemingly taking over everything from my writing hand to better judgment. By the way, Ramble Tamble is the title of the first cut on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s  classic 1970 album, Cosmo’s Factory. It one of the rockingest songs I know, a great road song and might be as good a fit for our current times as it was for my youth.

Casting for Carpe Diem

Another week has peaked and waned
and here I lie to wonder,
“What is it that you’ve gained
from living seven more days under
a plan with no plan contained,
in this life of blunder after blunder?”

Oh, I’ve seen seven suns rise
and watched them seven times fall.
But life no longer offers a prize
on the ride where you must be this tall.
Adulthood offered only losses and ties,
barely chance of winning at all.

So I guess this is a lesson learned
over time and rock hard ground,
that my life’s happiness is earned,
not serendipitously found.
That each time the Earth it turned
was my shot to make laughter’s chiming sound.

Maybe it was for a nebulous tomorrow I’d pine,
a today out of reach, a chance not yet blown.
A day where I could seize a ring so fine
on the ride not dependent on your joy alone.
So tonight, when I row in at sunset, I’ll be fine,
savoring the day I hooked all on my own.

Awaiting the Impossible Improbability

The waiting gets to you,
especially when you know
that for which you wait
will never come. Yet still
you sit by the window peering
at your out-of-focus world
hoping to see if those eyes
will come into view
and kindly set upon yours.
It’s just another pipe dream
a reverie, that, if realized,
would inevitably break your heart.
Nevertheless, you wait,
even knowing that if these
empty dreams ever came true,
you’d still spend your
graying days by that window
waiting for the next
impossible improbability
to manifest itself through
the pane from behind
your fog of sighs.

We’re all dreamers, to some extent, even if we know if that for which we wish will never come. Or, if it did, it would only make us more dreamy and miserable. At least that’s what I see from behind this foggy window, where I write about dreamers and the dreamed-about.