by David Scott Ward

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.

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.