Thank you America for such an elegant and evocative gift.
I receive this gift with love and gratitude for the nation's commitment to me and other artists. The literary arts are the place where the most fiercely held hopes of the nation meet the most grave atrocities between people and cultures. In this beautiful and complex landscape of human loss and heartache, the presence of legitimate and enduring love is like oxygen, and can be found in poems and stories of vitality throughout the world. Thank you for the deep true grace of this fellowship! Such grace reminds me I am surrounded by lovely women: my wife, my three daughters not yet grown, my mother, my wife's mother, and my Czech-American grandmother who we call the Great One. The house is alive with conversation and music and dance, and the daily run is a high-speed dash until at last the house quiets and we whisper love to one another and the house sleeps. This threshold of quietness is like a descent into darkness, a powerful and intimate and abiding darkness in which the light emerges in words and the rhythm of words and the breathing of my wife and three daughters as they fall into their dreams. At the writing table I feel deeply loved because of the way my wife's face is illumined by the light from the hall, and I remember when she spoke to me earlier in the evening, how I pressed my face to hers and felt the bones of her face against mine and the kiss of her lips against the underside of my wrist. She kissed me to grant me life, and to ward off death.
Poems and stories are like prayers, given and received as much as they are worked at with sweat and tears. I hope I can listen whole-heartedly to what is given.
Excerpt from "The Great Divide"
Sixteen years old, the boy walks the fenceline in a white out. He is six foot seven inches tall. He weighs two hundred and fifty pounds. Along a slight game trail on the north fence he is two hours from the house at thirty below zero. He wonders about his father, gone three days. His father had come back from town with a flat look on his face. He'd sat on the bed and wouldn't eat. At dark he'd made a simple pronouncement. Getting food, he said, then gripped the rifle, opened the door and strode outside long-legged against the bolt of wind and snow. Gone.
Walking, the boy figures what he's figured before and this time the reckoning is true. He sees the black barrel of the rifle angled on the second line of barbed wire, snow a thin mantle on the barrel's eastward lie. He sees beneath it the body-shaped mound, brushes the snow away with a hand, finds the frozen head of his father, the open eyes dull as grey stones. A small hole under the chin is burnt around the edges, and at the back of his father's head, fist-sized, the boy finds the exit wound.
When the boy pulls the gun from his father's hand two of the fingers snap away and land in the snow. The boy opens his father's coat, puts the fingers in his father's front shirt pocket. He shoulders his father, carries the gun, takes his father home. The boy's face is a tangle of deep-set lines. Where he walks, the land runs to the end of the eye and meets a sky pale as bone.
They lay him on the floor under the kitchen table. At the grey opening of dawn the boy positions old tires off behind the house, soaks them in gasoline and lights them, oily-red pyres and slanted smoke columns stark in the winter quiet. The ground thaws as the boy waits. He spends morning to evening, using his father's pick axe, then the shovel, and still they bury the body shallow. He pushes the earth in over his father, malformed rock fused with ice and soil, and when he's done the boy pounds the surface with the flat back of the shovel, loud bangs that sound blunt and hard in the cold. The snow is light now, driven by wind on a slant from the north. His mom forms a crude cross of root wood from the cellar and the boy manipulates the rock, positioning the cross at the head of the grave. The boy removes his broken felt cowboy hat, his gloves. His mom reaches, holds the boy's hand. Their faces turn raw in the cold. Dead now, she says. Your father saw the world darkly, and people darker still. Find the good, boy. She squeezes the boy's hand, Dust to dust. May the Good Lord make the crooked paths straight, the mountains to be laid low, the valleys to rise, and may the Lord do with the dead as He wills.
Already inside the boy a will is growing, he feels it, abstruse, sullen, a chimera of two persons, the man of violence at odds with the angel of peace. Find the good, the boy thinks.
The next day, sheriff and banker come and say I'm sorry and the four ride in the cab of the Studebaker back to town. Papers and words, the ranch is taken, some little money granted and the two move thirty miles to Sage, farther yet toward the northeast edge of Montana, the town joined to the straight rail track that runs the Highline. Small town, Sage. Post office, two bars, general store. They room with an old woman near dead in a house with floors that shine of maple, neat-lined hardwood in every room.
At night the boy hears a howling wind that blends to the whistle of the long train, the ground rumble of the tracks, the walls like a person afraid, shaking, the bed moving, the bones in him jarred, and listening he is drifting, asleep, lost on a flatboard bunk near the ceiling in a dark compartment, carried far into forested lands. Within the year, the boy's mom dies. In the morning under cover of cotton sheet and colored quilt he finds her quiet and still. He lays himself down next to her, holds her frail body in his arms and shakes silently as he weeps. In the end he stands and leans over her and kisses her forehead. In her hair, the small ivory comb given by the boy's father nearly two decades before. The boy places the comb in his breast pocket. In her hand he finds a page torn from scripture, Isaiah in her fingers of bone, the hollow of her hand, the place that was home to the shape of his face. He lifts the page, finds her weary underline, Arise, shine, for your light has come. And the glory of the Lord has arisen upon you. Behold, darkness covers the earth, and deep darkness its people, but the glory of the Lord has arisen upon you.
The boy waits. He stays where he is, not knowing. Behind the Mint Bar past midnight, he beats a man fresh from the rail line until the man barely breathes. When it started the man had cussed the boy and called him outside. The boy followed, not caring. The man's face was clean, white as an eggshell, but the boy made it purple, a dark oblong bruise engorged above the man's neckline. She has been dead one month now.
The boy lies on the hardwood floor at the house in Sage watching the elderly landlady as she enters the front door. She is methodical as she works the lock with tangled fingers. Welcome, Ma'am, he mouths the words. Same to you boy, she answers. Same hour each day she returns from the post office. It is dusk. The boy sees the woman's face, the boned-out look she wears. They have their greeting, she passes into the kitchen, he notices the light, a white form reflected left-center in the front window of the old woman's house. The house faces away from the town's main street. The thing is a quirk, he thinks, a miracle of fluked architecture that pulls the light more than one-hundred feet from across the alley and down the street, from the pointed apex of the general store and its hollow globe-shaped street lamp beneath which the night people ebb and flow on the boardwalk. The light comes through the aperture of a window at the top of the back stairs. From there it hits a narrow gold-framed mirror in the hallway and sends its thin icon into the wide living room. The light is morphed as it sits on the front glass, an odd-shaped sphere almost translucent at dusk, then bright white, bony as a death's head by the time of darkness. The boy hears the woman on the stairs, her languid gate, the creaking ascent to her room. As her body passes, the light disappears then returns. She is never in the front room at night and the boy rarely looks at her during the day, done as he is over his mother, over the loss of all things.
A man will be physical, he thinks, forsake things he should never have forsaken, his kin, himself, the ground that gave him life. Death will be the arms to hold him, the final word to give him rest.
Shann Ray is the author of a collection of stories, American Masculine (Graywolf Press, 2011), winner of the Bakeless Prize, as well as a creative nonfiction book of political theory, Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), which sheds light on the nature of categorical human transgressions and engages the question of ultimate forgiveness in the context of ultimate violence. Winner of the Subterrain Poetry Prize, the Crab Creek Review Fiction Award, and the Ruminate Short Story Prize, Ray has published work in such journals as McSweeney"s, Narrative, and Poetry International. He grew up in Montana and spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.
Photo by Vanessa Kay