When we look back on that time, we remember how strange it was at first to see our children’s sleds strung up on hooks like dead fish, to live in the midst of dry streets, dry grass, dry forests that should have glittered with heavy ice so we’d constantly warn each other not to walk under those boughs—If you go out there, you’re taking your life in your hands!—and then we all would have gone anyway to feel our brains tingle at the uncanny music of branches creaking and crackling in starlight. We knew winter must have gone somewhere, since anything that enormous, that cruelly beautiful, doesn’t just disappear, but though everyone speculated about it, by Christmas there was nothing left to say.
It was the second week in January when some middle schoolers tried to burn down an old outhouse on one of the abandoned properties just beyond town, then came running home, blabbing what they’d seen. Immediately their parents gathered in the streets, and then the dads marched off with axes and shovels. The outhouse itself was barely even charred, since it’s not till tenth or eleventh grade that kids tend to attain arson-competence, the crowning transformation of puberty. The ancient wooden toilet, which had long since been rocked off its setting, lay stove-in and crumbling on the dirt floor. Gathered around that ragged hole, the dads could see all the way down to the city of the dead, its spires and watchtowers with their high-mounted handless clocks, its public squares and sunken spring-fed pools, its albino horses pulling carts through the winding streets lit with gas lamps, and our ancestors shuffling along in their veils of silence.
The sight of the city wasn’t new to the dads, of course; we were all used to these portals popping open here and there as they found opportunity, once every five or ten years, and the sealing-over ritual had become so streamlined throughout the generations that by this point it would have taken only a few minutes. The sacrifice was no longer human or even animal, which is why each dad had an onion, a radish, a carrot, or a potato tucked in his pocket, root vegetables befitting the occasion. Immediately afterward, the dads would have gone for their celebratory round of beer. But now they stood there agape, stunned by the bright snow covering the underworld’s rooftops and drifting in its streets, the glare of the icicles hanging from its eaves and gutters. Winter had abandoned us, taking its own light with it and burying itself alive.
That’s why our town has so many new holes, created to give everyone a bit of access. From spring through fall the municipal workers keep them capped with bulky metal covers, but every day between October’s end and mid-March you see people leaning over the edges for a flash of white or a whiff of chill to tide us over while we’re still topside.
is the author of Wonders of the Invisible World (forthcoming from 42 Miles Press) and eight other poetry collections, including most recently, Scape (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2016) and Locals: A Collection of Prose Poems (Serving House Books, 2012). She has been awarded fellowships from the NEA and the Tennessee Arts Commission, and has received the New Millennium Writing Award (twice) and two Pushcart Prizes. She has taught at the Greenville Fine Arts Center, Clemson University, and various conferences, including Bread Loaf and the Bloch Island Poetry Festival.
Author’s blog: Claire Bateman New Art and Writing
Speculative Friction, a column by Claire Bateman at The Weekly
Combustible in New Flash Fiction Review (Issue 7,
Summer 2016; the Prose Poetry issue, guest-edited by Nin Andrews)
⚡ Nin Andrews interviews Claire Bateman, Poet and Painter in The Best American Poetry Blog (January 2017)
Upkeep, a poetic fable in The Los Angeles Review
Pure, a prose poem in Mudlark (No. 44, 2011)
Another Poem on Blue in Valparaiso Poetry Review
(Volume IV, Number 2, Spring/Summer 2003); also posted to Claire’s blog
(on 29 Oct 2016)