His Knives

by John Stanford Owen

He swiped the straight razor
down a brown leather strop,
then scraped the blade up
his throat, his face becoming
an upturned moon, a stone
smoothed years in a river.
I wanted to be brave like that—
summer nights mud crusted
and flaked like dry leaves off
my knees as I sat cross-legged
beneath the pine rows, waiting
for manhood to come bursting
from the stars and bless me
with a beard and barreled voice.
My grandfather’s shaving always
brought blood dribbling down
his cheek in thin red ribbons,
and sometimes the bright pinch
of toilet paper remained wet,
stayed fused to his face whole
days while he kept watch over
migrant workers, and severed
grapes off the vine with knives
that glowed blue from decades
of gun oil and sharpenings.
So many knives, he kept three
in his glove box and picked grit
from his fingernails with another.
A cigar box brimful of Barlows.
So many knifes, the Bayonet
and the Bowie hung on hooks,
locked like secrets in the shed
after my uncle, in his twelfth year,
got brave with both of them,
crossed the blades over his head
before slicing the air, the twine
that held a bouquet of shovels
together, and when they clattered
over him, the boy rose with blood
blossoming around the crescent tip
inched inside his calf, not hurting
until he saw the Bowie snagged
and dangling down to his ankle.
That afternoon, my grandmother
iced and washed the wound, wove
a sewing needle clean and quick
through her son’s skin, quieting
pain as she repeated hush, hush.


Forty years, and wasps battered
inside the same plastic light-globe
swinging on its chain in the cursive
wind whistling through windows,
the ceiling yellowed and pregnant
with rainwater. Knives topped
the ice box, and twin razors
freckled with dry lather lay crossing
the soap dish. Mice made their home
crawling through holes in the attic
walls, panicked claws clicking behind
peeled gray paper. No one climbed
those steps in decades, my grandfather’s
slow ascent sending a thick snow
of dust and plaster drifting down,
peppering the kitchen table, the foil
squeezed around the turn-dial’s
bent rabbit ears. Hands and knees,
a flashlight pinched between teeth,
flies began to investigate his face.
Pellets shaped small constellations
fixed to the molded, leafy carpet.
It was fast, the babies wrinkled
and pink, fetal-curled. Walking
the bare vineyard, he flung each mouse
body by body from a burlap sack,
leaving meals for milk snakes, stray cats.
The poison he’d scattered stained
his fingers with the smell of slack
skeletons, stiffened fur, so he
clenched, with both white-knuckled
fists, a bolo machete’s dull blade,
as if the steel offered something other
than waiting always for autumn’s
release, money for the grapes he’d
see swell and crawl down trellises.
In my grandfather’s dreams, knives
bristled the air like war arrows,
though he never got cut. The year
I was born, his eyelids sagged black,
his legs, with each strained step,
turning more into cracked glass,
so fearing he’d never make it past
the first days of my life, he handed
my father a Swiss Army knife
to give me. When the time is right,
he said. But he lived to see me
take hair off my own face. He lived,
though his lungs hissed like steam.


When I asked about the blood
vessels webbing like lace doilies
in deep purple streaks scraggled
over his nose, his cheeks, he said
the words skin cancer. And he was
calm. I wanted to say a short prayer,
but couldn’t. As a child, I asked
what heaven looked like—a haunted
attic, he said, and I thought his white
hair meant it was always snowing
inside his mind. I still believed that,
driving him to the doctor he had
refused to visit, while he yelled
how much he wanted to punch
my lips in. Then walking him by arm,
almost pulling, past the hot lights,
past wheelchairs braked at check-in,
each room with two patients sitting
up in their beds, staring forward
like children in school desks; it was
a slow collage leading back to his life,
and the nights after, when I leaned
to swab the holes in him, taped fresh
gauze, the long months of silence,
his leathery face looking more like he
held greasy coins under his tongue.
Forgive me, it was only wet breathing
veiled by paper masks—only one
more knife scraped across his skin.
I meant it as an act of kindness.

JOHN STANFORD OWEN’s poems have appeared in DMQ Review, the Southeast Review, Third Coast, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and the Yalobusha Review. He is finishing his MFA at Southern Illinois University, where he teaches composition and creative writing and directs the Saluki Writers’ Project, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to the community based teaching of creative writing outside of the traditional university setting. He lives with his wife and dog in Carbondale, IL.