Son, I’ll say this about sipping moonshine:
not a man nowhere could distill like Nat.
Like downing a dram of what gods must drink.
In a cave where a cottonmouth once caught his ankle
(a snake that’d stretch from here to Selma),
a steak plaster and a pint of shine patched him up,
they say. His still, I saw it once
and Unc Nathan and his Negro, weird in the knowledge
of the woods, who could wind deep wounds with corn silks,
witch hidden waters with a willow wand.
He fed the still’s fire, his wild eyes fierce,
always with anger. I was almost
seventeen, I suppose, before I strutted my onions
into their secret still to buy some shine.
My friends, fearful, parked their Ford
by the river’s slow running. I reached through dark
one mile to the mouth of the abandoned mine,
its sheer and shoreless dark with no shadow.
My cold hand catching at a coal seam, I felt
my way into woe and cursed my weakness,
having followed my foolishness to impress my friends.
Now not a night noise for comfort,
I waded cold waters that flooded the way,
and dark danced in dream horrors,
red-limned, outrageous, and running wild.
I started at a sound, felt steel on my throat
and my jugular jumped on a jackknife’s edge.
I peed like a puppy. I supposed it was
the Negro and renewed in my night-emptied mind
the rumor of the revenuer he was said to have murdered.
My neck on the knife leash, I knew I was done for,
but by and by, he brought me to torch light.
I turned in a tunneled and terrible shaft-space
where Nat was enthroned in a niche of the rock.
Three pikes encircled his place of repose.
A sickly skull was stuck upon each,
bleached cap of racoon, smile of the wildcat,
but the middle one’s mat of hair mussed with gore
was horribly human. My insides heaved.
I cut my eyes to the cavern’s far corners,
the grave Golgotha I’d come to underground.
Such squalor and swine-life I never had seen.
Old rags, rat-rifled, trash stuff and wrappers,
chin-deep in the shining and shifting of firelight,
one bed mat buried in the bounty of garbage.
Nat stood and stared and wiped the smile
off my face. I figure he thought of father,
his brother and brimstone Baptist preacher.
My first time face to face with Nat,
his smell was rancid, his rotten mouth reeked.
He refused my five-spot, said “Don’t fool with me boy.
The next time you need some of Nat’s good spirits,
you use the back door at Billy’s Used Cars,
like everyone else.” I allowed I was eager.
The glass jar glistened in the glowing fire
as if God had given me the greatest of boons.
Then a haunting, heart-rending sound I heard,
half song, half scream, and bare feet came scrubbing
from the dark of a den or a tunnel adjacent.
Fully naked and nasty, she appeared out of nowhere.
I blushed at her breasts and the scruff of her bush.
Her hands were hidden behind her back,
bound I believed. Her rising scream broke
in fierce exhortation, “Free me, free me.”
Now the Negro interposed, seized
a stick smouldering in the fire’s root circle.
He inscribed an inscrutable sign in the air,
then slung the brand to the spot where she stood.
That woman went up in a weird gasp of flame
and sickly blue smoke, dispersed of a sudden
by the wafting of wings, the wings she now wore,
black sheened and raucous, as a bird of bad omen.
She picked for her perch the pike with the man skull,
leaned out her whole length, her yellow eye lolling,
and forced through the stench, “Never free, never free!”
But fear loosed by then, I fled that fright,
hunched like a half back, I held to my mason jar,
kicking curved sheets and echoes of splashing
a woman’s shrill weeping at my shoulder like wing beats.
I stopped my sprint at the smell of night air,
took one look back through the terrible tunnel,
at the door of dark to the Devil’s long house.
At the mouth of the mine in the welcoming moonlight,
I wallowed in water to wash out the piss,
collected myself, got my story straight.
For no matter how mean or marvelous the act,
the act is like steam and the story is stone.
I was hailed a hero though my friends hardly knew
what I braved not boldly in the black underground.
I drank with my friends, my first taste of fire.
And son, I’ve sipped many whiskies since
and not a man nowhere could distill like Nat.
In that wretched rat-hole by the murmuring river,
I saw sin was sickening and smelled bad to boot,
but to Nat, I knew, in his cavernous night,
that a soul, insubstantial, seemed easy to trade
for sipping the sweet art of cracked-corn and sugar,
for a legend that lives long after the man.
Son, I’ll say this about sipping moonshine:
Raised in Hayden, Alabama, DAVID SCOTT WARD holds degrees from Auburn University and the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Crucial Beauty (Scop, 1991), winner of the 1990 Loiderman Poetry Prize. Presently, Mr. Ward teaches at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.