Mending a Net

Outside, an old man who might have been
   a prophet mended a net and whistled
      something tuneless and familiar.

Across the road in the paint-flecked house,
   old women sipped coffee and spoke
      about heathens and church attendance.

The old man knew the voices--Mary Lambert, Eunice Haddock,
   Abigail Crane, the door-to-door breakfast committee
      at Good Shepherd Baptist. They spoke of an Easter Festival,

a Spring Fair to bring lost souls home.
   Words sliced through the screen porch.
      Gulls floated on wind blown

in from the bay, white hard-edged
   divots cut in a calcium sky.
      Down the oyster-shell road, by palm scrubs

and slash pine saplings, ditches stood stagnant, mosquitoes hovered,
   thick as thumbs. Rain had been falling
      for weeks; the old man's knees became his almanac.

His knuckles throbbed with a red, pulsing ache.
   The old women talked in blue, quilted voices,
      words like the interweaving of a cast net

or maybe like the weights that pull it down,
   the cinch that pulls mullet and trout in close
      before the fisherman draws sieve from water.

Someone may have mentioned his name, gestured with a chipped cup lip,
   but syllables knotted together
      and the old man lost the sounds as the south winds blew.

The net now finished, pooled at his feet.
   Behind him, a wooden box of nets to be mended.
      Above, gulls and gray could mean something

if he looked, if he took the moment to decipher
   what might not be a message. But the wind cut
      grooves in his skin. His fingers had gone numb.

:: Jeff Newberry, in Gulf Stream #25, 2006

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