August 27, 2021

Sarah Wheeler

THE WILD

My mother lives in a little yellow cottage 
that rests in the tall shadow of 
Grandfather Mountain. At night, 
she smears peanut butter onto pine cones 
and sets them out on the porch, 
leaving them for the bears 
the way children leave cookies for 
Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. 

My mother knows that this is a silly 
(some say foolish) thing to do, but she 
will not be told. Something in her 
always longs for more Wild. So she 
stands barefoot in her flannel nightgown 
on her snow-covered stoop 
and calls it to her door. Leaves 
the windows open as she sleeps—even in 
the February chill—and this is how 
I learned. 

How I learned to hold my chest wide, an open 
invitation. How to be a refuge 
for all wandering and hungry and sometimes 
wounded, sometimes dangerous 
things— 

Once, I pulled a screaming 
baby bunny from the clamped jaws 
of a stray cat— 
(and didn’t I get scratched?) 
and didn’t I sit up all night 
holding it under a lamp 
dabbing warm goat’s milk into 
its little mouth? 
And didn’t I feel the chill, too, 
when its tongue grew cold 
beneath my fingers? When 
its body became still (so still) 
and the little house I built for it 
suddenly turned into a casket? 
And how many times? 

How many times did we bring our feral finds 
home—The cats? The dogs? The raccoons 
whose mothers someone had squashed in the road? 
And didn’t we love them? And didn’t they teach us 
that loving meant 
allowing space? 

And didn’t we learn not to reach or clasp 
or clamp, but to drop our hands to our sides, 
open cups? To pretend cool indifference 
when they finally came and pressed 
their wet noses into our palms— 
They taught us: 
never jump at love, or else 
you’ll scare it away. 

So it only makes sense then 
that when I met a coyote 
of a man along the road, I 
invited him back home. And 
this is what I said to him: 

come in, 
help yourself to everything you want. 
              stay a while! 
or don’t— 

(but underneath my breath 
this is what I prayed: 

God, make my heart 
an 
unclenched 
fist— 
let me be 
an open 
cup—but 

please God, 
make him 
drink.) 

How 
many times? 
Too many 
times. 

Because this 
is the lesson I always choose to forget: 
you can make an untamed thing 
want you, even 
trust you, 
even 
love you, but 
you cannot make him 
stay.

from Rattle #72, Summer 2021
Tribute to Appalachian Poets

__________

Sarah Wheeler: “I was nearly eight years old in the summer of ’98 when my parents decided to uproot our family of ten from the suburbs of Virginia Beach and plant us on the side of a mountain in rural North Carolina. Growing up deep in the woods—surrounded by animals and hills and trees—so much of my early life consisted of simply taking in the natural world around me. The physical land I grew up on has informed so much of how I see and how I move in the world, so, as a writer, landscape and natural elements feature heavily in the work I create. As an adult, I’ve lived across the United States—in large cities and small towns and everything in between—but regardless of where I find myself, I am always striving to hold true to that unhurried pace of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” (web)

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