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A Sister by the Pond

An old Life photograph
prints itself on Rebecca’s mind: The German
regular army hangs
partisans on the Russian front.
Grandfather Wehrmacht in his tight-
collared greatcoat adjusts
the boy’s noose as his elderly
adjutant watches. Beside the boy,
his girl companion has already
strangled, her gullet cinched when a soldier
kicked the box from her feet.
In the photograph, taken
near Minsk, gray sky behind him
the summer of nineteen-forty-one,
the boy smiles—
as if he understood that being hanged
is no great matter.

At this open winter’s end, in the wrack
and melt of April,
Rebecca walks on the shore by her summer
swimming place, by Eagle Pond
where the ice rots. Over
the pocked glaze, puddles of gray stain
spread at mid-day. Every year
an ice-fisherman waits one weekend
too many, and his shack drowns
among reeds and rowboats. She counts
the season’s other
waste: mostly the beaver’s work—stout
trees chewed through, stripped
of bark, trailing
twigs in the water. Come summer,
she will drag away the trash, and loll on red
blossoms of moss.

She walks on the shore today
by “Sabine,” the beach her young
aunts made, where they loafed together,
hot afternoons of the war. She arranged
freshwater mussels on moss;
watched a mother duck
lead her column; studied the quick
repose of minnows; lying on pine needles loosened
out of her body. Forty years
later Rebecca walks
by the same water: When July’s lilies
open in the cove
by the boggy place where bullfrogs
bellow, they gather in the sun
as they did when she picked a bunch
for her grandfather Ben
in his vigorous middle age.

In October she came here last,
strolling by pondside with her daughter,
whose red hair brightened
against black-green fir.
Rebecca gazed at her daughter’s pale
water profile, admiring the forehead broad
and clear like Ben’s, without guile,
and took pleasure in the affection
of her silent company. By the shore
a maple stood upright,
casting red leaves, its trunk gnawed
to a three-inch waist
of centerwood that bores the branches’
weight. Today when she looks for it, it
is eaten all the way down; blond splinters
show within the gray
surface of the old chewing.

Two weeks ago she drove her daughter
to the Hematology Clinic
of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital
and paced three hours
among bald young women and skeletal boys
until a resident spoke
the jargon of reassurance. By the felled
maple Rebecca’s heart
sinks like the fisherman’s shack. She sees again
her son’s long body twist
in the crushed Fiesta: A blue light revolves
at three in the morning; white-coated helpers
lift him onto a stretcher;
the pulverized windshield glitters
on black macadam
and in the abrasions of his face.

In the smile of the boy hanged
near Minsk, and in the familiar entropy
of April at Eagle Pond,
she glimpses ahead a winter
of skeleton horses in electric snow.
That April, only the deep burrow-hiders
will emerge who slept
below breath and nightmare: Blacksnake,
frog, and woodchuck
take up their customs among milkweed
that rises through bones
of combines. That summer, when blackberries
twist from the cinders
of white houses, the bear
will pick at the unripe fruit
as he wastes and grows thin, fur
dropping off in patches from his gray skin.

Today, at the pond’s edge, old
life warms from the suspense of winter.
Pickerel hover under the pitted, corrupt
surface of April ice
that erodes at the muddy shoreline
where peepers will sing
and snapping turtles bury their eggs.
She sways in the moment’s trembling
skin and surge: She desires only
repose, wishing to rise
as the fire wishes or to sink
with the wish and nature of stones.
She wants her soul to loosen
from its body, to lift into sky
as a bird or withdraw as a fish into water
or into water itself
or into weeds that waver in water.

– Donald Hall