Summer nights we put pennies on the track.
Even the station was quiet enough for crickets.
Mountains surrounded us, middling high and purple.
No matter were we stood they protected us
with perspective. People call them gentle mountains
but you can die in there; they’re thick
with creeper and laurel. Like voodoo,
I drew pictures with a sparkler. A curved line
arced across the night. Rooted in its slope,
one laurel tree big as the mountain holding it.
You can hear the train in the rails.
They’re round, not flat, as you’d expect,
and slick. We’d walk the sound, one step, two, slip,
on purpose, in the ballast, hopscotch
and waltz on the ties, watching the big, round eye
enter the curve and grow like God out of the purple,
the tracks turning mean, molten silver blazing
dead at us. We’d hula. Tango. And the first
white plume would shoot up screaming long, lonely,
vain as Mamma shooing starlings from her latticed pies.
Sing Mickey Mouse, the second scream rising long, again,
up and up. Stick our right hip out, the third
wailing. Give it a hot-cha hot-cha wiggle, the fourth
surrounding us. Wrists to foreheads, bid each other fond
adieus, count three,turn our backs and flash it a moon,
materializing, fantastic, run over with light,
the train shrieking to pieces, scared, meaning it,
short, short, short, short, pushing a noise
bigger than the valley. It sent us flying,
flattened, light as ideas, back on the platform,
the Y6B Mallet compound rolling through
southbound, steamborne, out of Roanoke.
It wasn’t to make the train jump the track
but to hold the breath-edged piece of copper
grown hot with dying, thin with birth,
wiped smooth of origin and homilies.
To hold such power. As big as the eye
of the train, as big as the moon burning
like the sun. All the perspective curved,
curved and gone.
"Saving Memory", from Out of Canaan by Mary Stewart Hammond.
Copyright © 1991 by Mary Stewart Hammond. Originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.
Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.