Rusk County Rag
A fourth-grader, I had run away, or maybe just run,
and now had to come running back
to the nettles of my grandmother’s speech,
grandfather exhausted and sad from searching block after block,
but I had news to tell, a trampled field, a far-flung farm
and now comprehending loss, that I was lost.
clothes rumpled, rambling and rumbling
through the rural decay of Rusk County, rust and ruin,
like a big-bellied-boar rooting up a backyard,
enraptured by pitchfork-piled haystacks, corncribs and pig-shacks,
and in a half-dug hole a skull and rump bone of cow,
I had stumbled sputtering vulgar words too robust
for a thin boy, all knuckles and buckles,
and the shallow fields of new winter wheat and grazed corn,
cattail ditches and duckweed ponds
made my voice a thunderous drum,
I had come full of bunk and beauty knowing plugs
to lure bass-thumps at dusk,
stump-sitting, fence-jumping, tunnels and fox-run,
wigwam, wigwag, zigzag and scram,
delving in depths for crayfish, crawdad, tadpole and toad.
And as I traipsed, I took in the sky blue and precise
behind each definite thing as if I could pocket it,
then broke down with a shudder, a shake,
swallowed by the immensity of each definite thing,
and as I walked toward my grandfather’s home
all pants and chance, I walked on the path
by the Flambeau, river of flowing flames.
In the water the autumn hues mingled,
refracted, reflected, drawn deeper by water.
The land flowed slowly where I stood.
The river stood still.
The tamarack and cedar, maple and aspen,
white birch and black birch, paper birch unbound,
boxwood and oak, butternut, elm,
all danced in rapture without wind.
Feverish and hollow, struck dumb
by the ringing bell of the Flambeau,
I knew this wending ribbon
of water had deceived, had deked
and tricked and taken my spirit with fire.
I remember the river flickering like embers at evening,
the swallows and martins following the lines
of the shore with cries of sharp trepidation,
martins in threes, swallows in throngs,
my immense jubilation, as if pleasure persisted
by the intimate beating of wings.
Entering Lime Bog for cranberries was difficult,
bramble like sidewinders looped and intersected
like rolls of barbed wire at a border.
Days in the fall during college when Dan and I’d visit
the cranberries would still be under water,
and then, pop, some would appear
on the surface on a Saturday morning,
we’d wade with heavy rubber gear,
swing our weighted legs out in half-circle
just to go forward with a step.
We did not need a rake or pole.
As our legs trudged cranberries would surface,
until we’d look back and see a twenty-foot-long
swath of red and orange. Boyish fun,
we were interested in making a line of red
against the backdrop of yellow foliage.
That was our harvest, simply the color.
But we burlap bagged a few pounds,
took them to my landlord Mrs. Vovakovic
who made both a tart jam and relish.
Boys’ joy in men’s bodies.
In winter the third year of our discovery
I returned after snow had fallen
to look at the bog. The impenetrable bramble
now had openings that deer had made
that I could bend and follow
and only a few poking spears of vegetation
came through the snow and ice,
as if fingers motioning for help,
calling for help to churn the water,
for a pop and splash of red.
But Dan did not come, not hearty
for a long walk in the cold weather.
It’s a bog, he yelled over the phone, a bog.
You visit a bog in autumn and no other time.
It needs time to sleep, and you’re going to wake it.
Whether it was the cranberries aligned in a channel,
the vibrant red against the dying leaves
or the companionship of Dan I missed, I did not know.
Like a small child at the door to their parent’s bedroom,
I went week after week, trying to rouse it.
Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California and works in mental health. He grew up in Wisconsin and much of his mental landscape is still informed by that experience. He has contributed to Heartwood, Tar River Poetry Review, and Red Wolf Journal.