Carson Leonhardt, Under the Dogwood Tree

Carson Leonhardt

My younger brother saw the striped bass we caught
dead on the wood-dock, asked if they had went to heaven,
like dad—asked where we were to bury them—
the neighbors were burning leaves and laughing,
drinking wine—the unsettled wake rinsing
thick dross hanging to dock pilings, before
leaving the body of a lake, burying into clay
beach, finding a dune of large rocks—
I looked at him, nodded and pointed towards
the dogwood tree in the yard, beside the peeling
white birdhouse that turreted nearly ten feet up.
Alcott took him inside while I cleaned the sponged
bait from the old fishing rods, put
them into the tight closet that hugged
the wall—beside the white rocking chairs. I found
the garden spade in the garage wrapped
in an argyle rag stained with earth; Alcott held his hand
while I bored at stringy grass and dark loam,
three divots adjacent one another,
under the dogwood tree, beside the quiet play-house
and switch-bush. I pulled some small staves
of wood from the brick chips and spiders that spread
out from the feet of shrub-beds. I placed the dead
fish in their rayless pits, after my younger
brother poured lake-water he collected in a plastic
wine glass left sitting on the wrought iron
table—he told us, Alcott and I, that they needed to breathe.

The three of us held hands, kneeling
under the decaying blooms, incense of burnt
leaves and shade of dusk; since dad
had passed my younger brother had always
prayed directly to him:
“Dad, let these fish know we’re sorry, and that the lake
will miss them.”
I heard the rustling of wind
through gaps of leaves, concentrated in the way
sunlight can gather in beams—the neighbors
had stopped laughing, were now staring at us. Alcott
and I waited with our brother under
the tree, as he patted the row
of small hillocks, smoothed the mix of wet
grass and leaf, and soil. The longcase clock
could be heard striking—a quarter past eight,
the one with the heavy chain that mom would pull
to wind until the weights would almost touch
the box casing the clock face—he rose from the umbrella
of the dogwood, with a stretched smile that
widened to a yawn, torn grass hanging
to his pink bare feet.

North Carolina in September, disconnected
leaves falling into brush fire, wind
drawing onto moving lake, sun hanging
onto horizon, bending its own place into the on-look,
the way rabbits in the backyard bury into
the quickset: a tough fretwork of branch. Alcott made
black coffee in the empty kitchen, while
I helped our bother onto the mattress at the foot
of the master bed, stretched the neck on his blue pajamas to fit
carefully over his blonde hair, wound long
sleeves up to their end before working them down to cover
his arms; he looked at me before taking a deep
breath, the kind you aren’t sure you will catch
to exhale—he missed dad so much, had less time
with him then us, “It feels good to cry, don’t you think?”
he asked. I looked up, at the beige ceiling, light
playing off spinning fan-blades, letting the tears fall
back, away from my cheek—“Yes,” I whispered, “it
shows us that love cannot die; it is a way to organize
our own strength—a measurement
which encourages us to spend the time we have so well
that it’s worthy to grieve once it has passed.” The tall
clock downstairs began the first of nine strikes,
the smell of coffee climbed the side stairwell which
summited into the narrow hallway outside the bedroom
door. I watched his eyes fall shut, and thought about how my younger
brother was wiser than I, how he saw
salvation in our sport, our dinner, and wanted something
more than a meal, more than a hook on a rod, a funeral
thereafter, a family to pray with.

Alcott and I sat outside on the verandah,
drinking coffee from the mugs
our father once had; we looked into the yard, and
beyond it to the faint red and green lights of party-yachts and life
moving on. I studied the makeshift graves under
the tree, imagined the dead fish floating under packed
soil, realized how much more that meant then a fishing trip, or a
report card. I watched the thunderclouds encroach
on the haloed-moon and cold air, bunching close to keep
warm, I noticed the way our breathing was visible
and how it formed the same plume as burning leaves
in night air—we watched the rain first dent
into the sanded lake, and wind lay
down the tombstone-branches. And I smiled
because it did not matter that the markers fell,
only that they had once marked,
that my younger brother had marked them.


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