The Number of Heaven and Earth

by John Colburn


They stole chickens and
slaughtered cows

they castrated pigs
they cut the tails off piglets
they followed deer through the woods
shot them in their necks
they put out traps
they raised lambs then slit their throats
they hung animals upside down in their barns
the blood drained out
their guts were baskets
they carried babies or carried bread
downriver to grandmother’s gut
in the fall they slaughtered and they boiled meat
they canned the meat and stored it
in root cellars in shelved rows
and other parts even brains
they used for sausage
and they tied horses to iron equipment
and whipped them
but the dogs just ran free
they put meat in a clearing
and waited for a bear
all of this meat is how I am

my great grandfather stole three chickens
he was put in jail
he got out he had a stroke
then he could only swear
only from half his face
his wife lost her mind was
‘committed’ but when he died
she ‘came out of it’
lived for years
never stole chickens
they caught fish and slid steel knives
into their bellies
they dreamt of animals
the animal terror went into their bodies
and they too lost their minds
coyotes came to speak to them
they killed other people
as they were told to
they kidnapped a Lakota woman
it was winter there was so much snow
and nothing to kill
they survived on potatoes and
canned meat and canned pears
so that I was born

and one day a rabbit bit the tip off my finger
and chewed it up
so we killed the rabbit

some of them lived with mules in Kentucky
or horses in Massachusetts
some of them turned their front yards
into pig wallows in Iowa
and they kept slaughtering
they bought guns and sows
and killed who they were told to kill
and made whiskey
and killed rabbits and raccoon and foxes
they poached and ran
or later drove their cars into ditches
and more of them went to jail
they wanted sex and families
they wanted to slaughter more animals
even a horse in the worst of times
they were ready
in their root cellars
and they sang about food and animals
they played guitars by the stove
or on porches
and more animals died and became songs
meat dripping everywhere
and I got here and began eating

this morning I saw a rabbit in the driveway
I saw its beautiful eye
it was feminine
it carried a baby it carried bread
its eye was a womb
I was given a heart-shaped basket
made from dried plants
and I wrote down the river
I thought who is riding in the basket
it feels like no one

the incinerator came on at dusk
in the old yellow sky
and wolf-children came out
their hair gone poisonous
the people grew tired of raising them
and rubbing pollen on their bodies
grew tired of how years
run together after dark

they kept their bodies warm to stay alive
they cut down trees
and burned them to boil water
they shaved the sheep
they spun and wove the wool
children watched the looms fill
they had to keep warm
and some of them burned animal shit
some burned oil from the ground
or oil from giant whales
hauled onto boats and hacked to pieces
and the chimneys glowed hot
the lanterns glowed
children slept near whatever could burn
the adults killed to stay warm
they killed to eat
they burned lost people passing through
and the children watched their faces melt

he might be dying
might have died several times already
he has a face problem
the face is no good and must be hidden
there’s the seed of a face in there
all withered
someone check his teeth
looks like a thief
like if you took a pine cone
got it wet
through magic it grew bigger
and walked around
he is the kind of person
to squish in a machine
press the juice out of
or rip apart with horses
pour boiling water onto
shoot metal into
tell him to keep moving
or we’ll set him afire

they wanted to stay warm
they wanted to make more children
the rivers flooded
they were alive but winter came on
night came too and they wrote letters
someone lit a candle
the church bell froze
a crow perched on the chimney meant
someone would die
a white dog on the road at night
was a spirit
a woodpecker at the window
meant prosperity
a coyote in the yard
meant bad luck and a hard winter
souls inhabited the fires
ancestors spoke from the mouths of fish
the cemetery glowed at night
an elk wandered up to the house
to deliver its message
how fire keeps the busy souls away
sunlight in the pines
wild turkeys half-mad along the road
long lines of eggs and mothers and
sunlight in their feathers
each evidence of glowing sound
mind expansion practice dream
the squirrel alive and
the hawk in its piece of sky
and they prayed for sanctuary
they dreamt of the number twelve
and of twelve gears
turning this world
through the levels of urge
and in their dreams
where celestial fruits fell
into twelve tributaries
they prayed to be absorbed
by the divine
but instead they woke up
and drank whiskey
and wanted to fight
they distilled moonshine
in Kentucky
they took amphetamines and kept working
kept killing
the word was sacred
so they didn’t speak
they built El Dorado industrial parks
on the graves of each other
they built flashbulbs and stark faces
they built orchards and winding roads
and shudders for the windows
of homes they built or stole
and they built a word for us
they called us the future
and they kept killing
they got to twelve and they started over
the future was both heaven and earth
the gods the months the stars
a spiral of twelve
a fulfillment
an eating sound.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 21. Nov. 1, 2013.