Perry Epes

An Adirondack Lyrical Ballad

Halfway through the seventh verse of “Pretty Polly,”
just after Willie tells her she’s guessed it ‘bout right,
for he’d dug on her grave the best part of last night,
Jack Hubert jumps up at the first chance not to listen.
His big shadow gestures sway against the near trees
in campfire glow, reaching toward a pinpoint of light
on the far ridge across the lake, like a shot star
in the woods. “That’ll be up Cy Beede’s Ledge,” he growls,
blaming cigarette butts tossed by weekend guests
the summer people bring up there, on the short hike
to a near overlook, for the cheapest good view.

    Jack’s time is winter, when the lake will freeze four feet
and he can drive his tractor across, do heavy work
like hauling calor gas tanks, and not put up with
the filthy rich New Yorkers and Philadelphians
who own these camps. The people I’m working for now,
as summer cook and guide, trekked in one Christmas Eve.
No sooner had they settled in than Jack showed up
with the cold facts: they could leave in twenty minutes
or stay three weeks in the blizzard blowing up.
They staggered out on a tow rope behind his tractor
in blinding swirls of snow. No one hears Jack tell
of wild dogs circling, one child dropping off,
but their own little Polly (for whom I learned the song)
believes to this day in feral lore of the wolves.

    One of us tries a thought: “Could be a campfire, Jack.”
But it’s still a damn-fool thing in this heat and drought.
We’ll have to check it out. I lay aside my guitar,
knowing I can’t guard it in the rush we’ll be in.
We smother our fire with scoops of sand, not water.
I shove off first with Billy Koop, who lets me row
his Adirondack guide boat, narrow-beamed and fast.
The knack is pulling cross-handed; skinned my knuckles raw
in weeks of practice. Billy’s been learning my songs
while showing me how to caulk a keel with oakum—
weird stuff, like hemp rope steeped in tar; you knead it
and pound it into the cracks with wooden mallets.
Now he hums “Pretty Polly,” coiled there in the bow
that slits taut water like a point of shears. We cross
a shadow-line where the nearing shore blocks moonlight.
Gliding into this dark stirs dread we’ve swallowed back
all summer: banshee cries of loons in shore,
then crashing in the bushes—that’s no loon
but a yearling cub caught whimpering for its
mother, and she’d be one to miss this time of year.
We’d hoist up and topple the oars, slap them flat
like pistol cracks to warn all nature, “Here we come!”
Tonight, though, we need no noise. From the other guide boat,
off and on, Jack Hubert whoops to beat us across
with rousings. The mountain shadow’s solid no more,
pricked by that pinpoint light, reflected, looking bigger.

Perry Epes
W. Perry Epes received an MFA from George Mason University and has published poems in Phoebe, Negative Capability, and GW Forum. He teaches English at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA, and coordinates the Word Works Young Poets Competition.



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