Often, as mother bent her slender back
to the fields, or pulled the bloody slip
of a lamb into the world,
I wandered the house,
studying motes of dust brought to life
by sunlight. I was looking for you.
And though you were near—
in the picture on the piano, in the looping
scrawl on your old calendar, in that finger's width
of black hair tucked in an envelope
by mother's bed—I never found you,
never opened the door
that led to the cool room where you knelt
with your rag, where the polished wood of rifles
gleamed and the soap smell of oil
laddered the air.
Yet you spoke to me.
When I climbed the piano bench
an wiped dust from the glass, you said, Look,
I charm the great dark bird from the sky,
I wear a tie and hold your mother at the waist,
I am this perfect hand of cards.
When I pulled the calendar from the wall
and rubbed my grubby fingers across your script,
you said, See the price of lambs last year,
get a nickel better. The battery in the Ford should last
until you're fourteen. For the best meat,
drop a doe after the first frost.
And when I snuck
into mother's lonely room of rumpled sheets, opened
the yellow envelope, and touched to my lips
your clipped black lock, you said,
I have left you.
Joe Wilkins was raised on the high plains of eastern Montana and now lives in northern Iowa. His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Ecotone, The Sun Orion, and Slate, among other magazines and literary journals. "The Voice of the Father" was published in his 2012 collection of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward.