Trapping 101 & The Mason Jar

In 1988, my brother Charlie passed away at the age of 27.  Since then, not once have I hunted nor trapped.


Trapping 101

With gear and bait strapped to our packs, we hit
the trail at 5:00. You ready, Max? Thinking back,
it must have been a thousand times I watched
my brother trek down from the mountaintop
with small game knotted tightly to his pack.
He was 21 back then – 13 years
my senior – with backwoods smarts so fresh,
so pure, that no one dared to question him.
His pace was quick, but not too quick for me.

An hour down, up near the hollow’s rim:
Hey – look ahead… You see what’s on the trail?
I squint a bit, then give a guarded nod.
You see? Another nod, more self-assured.
Yea… yea, I can see. Just a couple feet
beside the oak. Cautiously, a few more steps,
then squatting down behind the trunk: …from what?
he asks, his finger pointing at the dung.
With honesty, the truth: Don’t really know.

With twig in hand, he rolls one specimen
of feces from the clump. Don’t know this shape?
This time, his eyes square with mine, I can tell
the question is no joke. C’mon, boy – it’s coon
That dung – you see? It ain’t dried up just yet.
I interrupt: That’s cause the coon – he left
not all too long ago… that right? He nods.
You got it! …So, a little later on
tonight, you think he’ll come this way again?

I watch his fingers model how to set
the trap and place the bait. With twig in hand,
he shows me how the teeth will snap – ka-WACK!
No joke – you wanna keep them fingers, right?
This ain’t no Play-skool toy, you know? I nod.
Now go ahead and do just as I done.
Transcending past the school yard jungle gym,
no remonstration necessary. I
could sense, could tell, that I was growing up.

The Mason Jar

I sat at the kitchen table writing
about sorrow
until Christmas lights formed around my eyelashes.
With that burning feeling
in and around me again,
I repented for what I had not been able to do.

Setting aside my notepad,
I burrowed down to the fruit cellar,
buried my hands in its cool soil
and found your jar of letters.

Taking your words in my hands, trekking
out to the old black walnut tree, I sat
and read the lines you had sewn.
You were 27 then, and in green waters,
with a full-grown grizzly beard
the color of the tail feathers of a hawk.
In your letters, songs fused from words
that once tripped off your living lips;
but in those words, the coded message
that soon your blood would be gone.

Beneath the tree I gained
strength when reading your lines,
like the nourishment a frail infant takes
from a warm and bountiful breast.

Sealing the lid on the mason jar, I walked on
into our clear pasture
where things were milky white and golden at my feet,
where the sky was gracefully dying from the birth of night,
and I planted myself again.
I lay supine and watched the blackening sky
become salted with stars
and reached for that unanswering source that is God.

And again I summoned the words you had written,
your blue-crystal eyes,
the red beard Jesus that you were –
your skin, brown like the soil,
those crowing veins sticking out on your arms and legs
like lines on a road map.
Where are you, man?

Since God is not here, my savior is my brother:
he walked in the water and his feet always sank to the bottom,
his laughter and saving voice
almost clear to me – almost –
like the sound of a banjo
through the warped wooded slots of an abandoned barn.

When the sun begins to bleed into day
I will trek back and bury your jar in the fruit cellar,
find the empty seat at the table,
get my black coffee rolling,
and keep your words with me, fresh,
to live a life of freedom with brotherly, heavenly ease.

Max Stephan’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Cimarron Review, the LyricAppalachia, the Louisiana Review, the Potomac ReviewBlueline and Slipstream.  Currently he is seeking a publisher for his latest collection, Poems for the American Brother.  Stephan is an Assistant Professor at Niagara University specializing in Contemporary American Poetry.