Nebraska Center for Writers

AROUGHCAN* — A Nebraska River Poem
by Beverly Merrick

The raccoon is always with me.
I took the orphaned cub young
from where she chittered wildly
her back arched on the swaying limb.
She who scratches with her hands was easily made tame.

Her pixilated spirit undisguised behind a foxlike face
she would nuzzle at the rubber nipple
then finding it, nurse fiercely — clutching the bottle
with long claws on curiously delicate human paws.

When rocked, she would curl a quiet conundrum
ball-like in the curve of my arm
hiding her face in the crease of a sleeve;
then suddenly awake, her whiskers bristling

she would scale a shoulder, plucking at the flannel collar
hanging downwards to explore a pocket
twirling the shirt's bottoms
with a contented purr. I would tickle her fine-furred

underside, and she would wrestle bearclawed:
snarling, sidling sideways in mock battle
curled lips over bared teeth.
Loyal only to me — until a friendly bite drew blood.

I carried her wildness, caged, down to the wooded riverbank,
the sound of her half-grown churls cutting
like sharp sighs through the rough prairie grass.
Opening the wired door, with cooled anger

I coaxed her out on the damp sand.
She lay sprawling on the water's edge:
black eyes bulging, feigning death.
I stroked her coarse back, trailing a hand cross-purpose

to the straight-ringed tail. She stiffened, suddenly alert
an ancient anima raising up on her haunches.
I backstepped through the fields
retreating to the darkened house. I return again —

and again — to the river's living bank
but only see tiny footprints
cutting crosspaths in the sand.
Once I followed the tracks where the narrowed loess trail

made close passage through rocks, trees and stumps.
The mischievous bearer of the hot nocturnal soul
had long since retreated, waiting out of sight.
Tonight I go again to take the raccoon back to the wilderness.

*AROUGHCAN: [pronounced ah-rew-cahn] Indian dialect, for raccoon.

Reprinted with permission
from Closing the Gate
Copyright © 1993
by Beverly Merrick
Nightshade Press

by Beverly Merrick

He never heard of the noble red man.
But his high-cheeked Cherokee bones
catch the glare of the ice
as the soles of his hip boots slip and slide
on the cold stones of Ice Creek.
With a thick, stiffened hold on the aching metal
he chips away at the ice
and releases the muskrat
from the underwater trap.
Now, his hands have forgotten the morning pain.

As he rocks before the cast-iron stove
sinuous with satisfaction
he thaws out the day
turning his red, swollen palms
in the warmth of the fire.
The pelts are already stretched
taut on their frames
inside-out, hanging wet and high
over the boxes of Christmas bulbs
in the trapper's shed given over to family.

He leans to loosen his boot strings,
and with a sigh older than breath
he thinks ahead to the supper of
side-back bacon, brown beans
and bread in a skillet.
Later, with stocking feet,
he will suck on a popsicle, nodding off in the chair
waiting for the sleep before the morning thaw
to check out the ginseng patches
even his sons have failed to find.

He now trusts his hands
to work a little more
on the yellowed tooth
the jagged edge of his tongue stinging
with the taste of Prince Albert
in a can. Tobacco has stained his forefinger
since the age of twelve.
Dentists have been extracted
from the out-of-doors, high and dry.
They are too far removed from Christmas.
The stain of his teeth may have tinged orange.
But the daily walks in the hills
have muscled out an Indian cunning
and muscled in a hunter's eye.
The doctors cannot believe his metal.
But neither do they believe in
the healing power of ginseng.
They ask why he waited so long to act
after the pain had hung on like frostbite.

He replies:

The only metal he trusts is his own
and his gunmetal squint locked down
on the trunk of a birch
where a hint of a movement
locks eye with eye
before he talks himself into the shot.
He has learned to handle the recoil.
He fancies himself Sergeant York:
slow to anger, sloth to kill.

But his ears no longer can hear
the sound of the water wearing away at the stone.
Nor can they detect
the stealth of the cancer.
Nor is the growth on his stomach
slow to anger, sloth to kill.
He steels himself and hangs in the waiting.
He knows the gun barrel nip
of Mountain Dew
cannot even wound
this feral animal of pain.
To Popsicle Childers

Reprinted with permission
from Closing the Gate
Copyright © 1993
by Beverly Merrick
Nightshade Press

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