The first poem ever written in the hardscrabble town of Dirt Rut was by Madison (age six), and it was about their friend Sally who had died in a stampede. Madison had seen death before—old age and a drowning—but unlike those deaths, nobody talked about Sally’s. So, six years old and full of feelings that no one saw fit to acknowledge, Madison wrote a poem:
Sally was barely a pup
But already her time was up.
She got kicked by a cow,
Fell over, said, “Ow,”
Now Sally won’t ever get up.
…which was lousy all around, especially for Sally’s family when Madison recited it at her funeral. When they were picked up by their ma halfway through the third line and hollering the rest as they were carried out of the church, that was when Madison had their first inkling that words might be worth a damn.
Since the poem about Sally had made people feel things (and since nobody seemed to appreciate those feelings), Madison (still age six) decided that crops and cows could be made to feel things too, but maybe it was better if they felt good things, like growing tall and getting fat. By age twelve, Madison had made considerable strides as a poet. Not particularly in form, but in putting an influence on goods, such as their ode to their ma’s garden:
The water that waters these plants
Gives ‘em one heck of a chance.
They’ll grow tall and true
When watered by you.
The parsnips will practically prance.
Bearing in mind, thank you, that Madison was the only poet born in Dirt Rut (population: unknown; counting past fifty wasn’t a common skill in Dirt Rut, which should tell you something about Dirt Rut) and the only entertainment available was a harmonica player who couldn’t tell his sharps from his flats. Not that anyone else could, either. Lord knows how long it took a harmonicist with no talent to stumble across a backwards little town where no one had any musical skill and couldn’t definitively tell you to your face that you hadn’t any, neither.
Madison was twelve when the harmonicist came to live in the town. It didn’t much suggest an outside world; it was practically an underline that life ended in the Rut. Still, it was a novelty that someone from outside came in, though it didn’t occur to Madison then that someone inside could also go out. What did it matter, anyway? It was enough that their choppy little poems made the crops grow taller, or helped calm a skittish horse, or sweetened the morning porridge.
They were sixteen when the singer came to Dirt Rut. A real singer, with words of her own that were worth a damn, who made people feel things they daren’t acknowledge.
Indelible Elle, dead woman walking.
Madison jumped as their friend, Jolly, slapped either side of the bench they sat on. The charcoal juddered across the page and Madison made a face as they rubbed at the marks.
“I was trying to find a rhyme for ‘manure’,” Madison complained.
“Sorry,” Jolly said sheepishly. “I didn’t see you was working. But I thought this would interest you.”
“Wuh—” started Madison, but Jolly put a hand over their mouth and cocked his head with an exaggerated listening gesture. They stayed in that tableau until Madison blew a sloppy raspberry into his palm.
“Hey!” Jolly took his hand away and wiped it on Madison’s pants. “Mouth shut, ears open!”
Before Madison could reply, a soprano susurrus wafted about them. Jolly’s face lit up.
“Is that?” said Madison.
“A singer!” said Jolly.
Madison rolled their charcoal and paper into a clumsy log. “What’s all this sneaking around for, then? Let’s go find her!”
“No idea where she is! I went to look, but no one’s caught sight of her yet.”
A dip in the volume made them freeze. “Don’t leave,” Madison whispered.
“Find me in the gloaming
by the lowing of the beasts…”
…came the first sweet lines. The two sat transfixed as the words wove a scene. The song ended and: “Luralee’s field,” they said simultaneously.
“Why did you think?” “How did you guess?”
The two stared at each other as their words overlapped. “It was obvious,” said Madison.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t,” said Jolly. “Golly, is that what it is to be a poet? Making people know what you mean without spelling it out?” His voice dropped with envy and admiration. “No wonder your ma lets you write all the time instead of mucking with the cows.”
“And helping out with the village,” Madison couldn’t help adding, and hurriedly continued, when they saw Jolly’s dejected face, “Not that herding cows isn’t helpful.”
“Sure, but anyone can smack a cow’s behind and make her moo,” said Jolly. “Bet if I ran away, no one would even notice.”
“I would notice,” said Madison. “Come on, there’s still hours left before the gloaming. I’ll help you with your chores and you can help me with my limericks.”
Jolly brightened. “Pooer,” he said as the two started towards Jolly’s family’s fields.
“Yeah. Poo-er. Someone who poos. As a rhyme for manure,” Jolly explained.
“Yup,” said Madison, with no further elaboration.
Luralee was getting on fifty, frequently drunk and thin as an old dish rag. She was mean and lonely and Madison assumed when they turned sixteen that they would be told the secret behind Luralee’s meanness and sadness, but she went on being herself with no explanation. Madison sometimes tried to slip a cheerful limerick about milking under her door, but Luralee always returned it to their ma. So it was odd that the singer had chosen Luralee’s plot, and out of the question that Luralee had agreed to her land being used. Both Madison and Jolly were lured as much by the promise of an honest-to-goodness performance as the unspoken threat of fisticuffs.
Not wanting to be the first ones Luralee saw traipsing about her land, the two lingered by the long irrigation channel waiting for anyone else with a dollop of curiosity to risk her wrath. Impatience turned to incredulousness, for it seemed like the whole population of Dirt Rut had the same idea. Creeping and scuttling, timidly at first and then with greater urgency as more people appeared behind them, all of Dirt Rut came to Luralee’s door.
“I’ll be darned for socks,” Jolly whispered.
Madison tugged at his shirt. “Come on, let’s get to the cows.”
Luralee hired no help for her land and let the grasses and weeds do as they pleased, and as such the vegetation was swirled and flattened and stood up and lay down and went in just about every direction possible. Sometimes the only way to locate her cows was by their mooing.
This time, the cows were noticed because they were directly under the singer’s feet.
“If I die from shock,” said Madison, “tell my parents to just bury me here and use this for my marker.”
Luralee’s six Holsteins stood in a ring, snouts out, rumps touching, chewing disinterestedly while a lady in a pink pinafore stepped from one broad back to another, surveying the coming crowd. She saw the two youths and smiled broad as an open barn door and just as gappy.
“Luralee’s gonna split you like logs,” said Jolly.
“Luralee couldn’t find her arse in a biscuit right now,” said the singer. The gaps in her teeth made the sibilants whistle, as though she couldn’t help but be musical even when cussing.
Jolly looked doubtful. “I dunno, miss. Luralee’s had a lot of practice being drunk.”
She waved away his concern. “I’ll milk that cow when it’s full. For now,” and she looked past the youths and they jumped to see a wall of villagers not five feet behind them, “I believe y’all are here for a song?”
She introduced herself as Indelible Elle.
About five minutes later, crawling through the tall grass to avoid the attention of the rioters, Madison asked, “Does that always happen?”
“Usually takes a bit longer than that,” said Elle. “I’m generally onstage for a week before anyone throws a punch. I mean, I didn’t think a place this small would support me more’n a day, but I wasn’t expecting this to happen so fast. People happy here?”
A dried cow patty flew overhead, but it didn’t seemed aimed with any malice, so they ignored it. “Luralee usually isn’t,” said Madison and flicked a spider out of their path, “but I guess everyone else is fine. Leastwise nobody confides in me particular, except when they want something.”
“That’s not so unusual,” said Elle. “You look pretty young to be shouldering everyone’s burdens, anyway.”
“I’m Dirt Rut’s poet,” they said, and felt ridiculous.
“Oh, well then,” said Elle. “That explains why you’re here with me instead of gone loco with the rest of ‘em.”
Madison winced as a sharp rock bruised their knee. “You lost me.”
“Poet in this kind of place, you’re putting a ‘fluence on things, right? More milk from the cows, bigger eggs from the chicken, taller crops from the fields. Right? You can picture it happening. It’s not real at the time, but you help make it real, and thinking about it doesn’t scare you. Tell me, what was I singing about?”
Madison thought back. “You were just describing a bunch of trees. How water looks when there’s a lot of it. What sunlight does after it goes away at night. It was real pretty,” they added, because when they said it out loud it sounded unimpressive and not at all a reason for everyone to start fighting.
“Thanks. You ever seen trees like I said? Or saw that much water, or thought about the sun?”
Madison shrugged as best they could while on all fours. “Some of it, maybe, in my head.”
“They didn’t,” said Elle, “or haven’t, or can’t, etcetera. And when they’re given it, they don’t know what to do with it. So they do…whatever. Yell. Laugh. Start punching.”
Jolly was back there, and their ma, and their pa too, probably, and Jolly’s family and the Herdleys next door with their littl’uns and oldsters Brainard and Gillam from the general store and all the rest, whatevering each other. Suddenly angry, Madison grabbed her sleeve. “Why do you do it?”
She didn’t insult them by twittering ignorance or answering the wrong question. “I seen lots of places and more people, and I’m tired of ‘em saying they’re happy when the truth is they just don’t know better. I’m old, kiddie-o, old and I got this one world to live in.” She patted the hand that was still clutching her sleeve. “Maybe I could make it to the moon—I’d like to. I can think of it, but I don’t know how to do it. So I tell people the rest of it, what I’ve seen and can imagine, and it fires them up or at least gets ‘em thinking. You want to stay here forever?”
The question caught them off guard. “They need me,” said Madison.
“Horse apples.” Indelible Elle creaked to her knees and scanned the horizon. There was the distant-thunder murmur of the townsfolk, but no one seemed to be following them. “Place like this’ll kill a poet, if you let it.” She stood with difficulty, the grasses tangling about her feet. Madison watched her pick her way through the field, her arms outstretched in an exaggeration of stealthiness, and felt resentment thud in their bosom.
“There once was a woman named Elle
Whose face was as bad as her smell.
She came to Dirt Rut
And fell on her butt
And she and her lousy opinions can go to hell!”
Several yards away, Elle suddenly disappeared into the weeds with a loud squelch and a louder yelp. When she got back up, she was laughing. Dissatisfied, Madison glowered after her, then followed the sound of other dissatisfied voices, hoping to find Jolly still in one piece.
Jolly was lucky; he wouldn’t need stitches or bone setting. He’d been overcome with weeping before getting decked by kindly old Brainard, and when he fell he’d had the presence of mind to crawl over to the ring of bemused cows rather than let himself be trampled on by his kinsfolk. He’d climbed onto Nasty, the matriarch; she’d accepted his weight with weary resignation. He was still up there, snuffling, when Madison found him. By that time, the feelings of the residents of Dirt Rut had gone from generalized, misunderstood anger to a specific, misunderstood anger.
“How dare she—” “Who does she think she—” “Come into our town and—” among other curses. Madison joined Jolly on Nasty’s broad back and held him until he stopped shaking and they started shaking instead, sickened by the things people were saying. “Giving herself airs—” “Putting ideas into—” “The nerve of—”
She was just singing about trees, thought Madison.
They thought their absence had gone unnoticed, but after a few minutes their ma came by and pulled on their foot with agitation and relief. “Madison! Oh lord, I was so worried that woman had taken you!” their ma cried.
“No, ma,” they said.
She kept shaking them by the foot. “Madison, you can’t ever become like that woman. Lord! The things she said! You wouldn’t ever talk that way to us, would you? Those awful words she used!”
Their ma blew her nose on her apron. Her knuckles were bloody. “Come home,” she said, and Madison obediently slid off of Nasty and followed.
All the way back, she spat vitriol and bile. Good people don’t do that. Causing trouble, nothing but trouble. Riling up the good folk. And for what? For what!
Madison thought, But she was just singing about trees.
The yodelling came earlier than the cock-crows.
All over town, people felt the music tugging at them, directing them wordlessly to Luralee’s fields. They could have ignored it—it was just a suggestion—but they knew who was calling them, and they wanted to find her.
Madison and Jolly met up and hurried ahead of the rush.
“I hope they don’t hurt her,” said Madison.
“They don’t know,” said Jolly, and paused. “They don’t know how bad hurt can feel,” he said.
Elle stood again on Luralee’s cows. “What’d you do to Luralee this time?” asked Jolly.
“Nothing,” said Elle. “She’ll be here.”
“Don’t,” said Madison, without thinking.
Elle’s gappy smile was like sunlight breaking through the clouds, and again Madison said, “Don’t,” because Jolly started crying again beside them, quietly.
By then everyone was surrounding her with Luralee at the forefront, holding a scythe.
Indelible Elle introduced herself, and began to sing.
“I’ve walked the dunes of deserts and I’ve smelled the breath of Spring.
The sun is glist’ning off the sand but I don’t see a thing.
I know there’s rocks beneath my feet, but all I feel is loam.
I’ve travelled distant, foreign lands but all I want is home.
If I die in the desert, then please remove my hands
And throw them in a fir tree so I never feel the sands,
And please remove my lowlands heart and feed it to the flames
So I don’t die with desert grit a-drifting in my veins,
And take from me my nose and tongue and fling them to the sky
To rid my nostrils of the scent of sand-dust when I die,
And bury you my aching feet in cool and fertile loam
And carry you my eyeballs so I might once more see home.
I’m lost within this desert, buried under sand,
The sky looms large as waterfalls, yet I can barely stand.
So please respect my wishes, aid my final roam,
A static, severed body given to my lonely home.”
This time, the anger was focused; even so, there was laughter.
“Get this junk off my property,” said Luralee, when it was done. People began gathering up the pieces and took them to the edge of town, where a sign read DIRT RUT. They were left there for the crows and other scavengers.
Chores needed doing, so eventually everyone got around to them, except for Jolly, who claimed a stomach ache, and Madison, who brought a backpack.
“You don’t even know where she’s from,” said Jolly as Madison sorted through the remains at the bottom of the sign post.
They found her lights still attached to their stalks and tied them like a charm to their belt. “Come with me,” said Madison, instead of anything else.
Jolly shook his head without disagreement and passed Madison her heart. They thought of the words they could use, the rhyme that would make up his mind and make him happy for it, and knew they could never say it. Not if they really loved him.
Jolly froze, but Madison sifted through the redness until they found a tongue. “Yes, ma,” they said.
“I told you they was here,” said Luralee, standing with her arms folded like sheathed daggers. “Them and that jittery one, not that his parents would mind. Not like good parents.” She nodded, satisfied.
“I’m leaving,” said Madison. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but I guess I might as well now. I’m going to learn about being a poet.”
Their ma clutched at their shirt. “Madison, honey, you are a poet. A good one, who does good work for good people. How could anything be better than that?”
Madison shrugged her off and continued filling their backpack with parts of Elle. Jolly found her nose and clutched it as though afraid it would be confiscated.
“We need you here,” Madison’s ma said. “That woman, she as good as said this place was a desert. You heard her! What will happen to us without you to fix it? Madison, I forbid you to go. You listen to me. I’m your mother and you aren’t going anywhere.”
Suddenly Madison whirled on her, chest puffed out like the neck of an angry snake. She squeaked and fell down, and even Luralee took a step back. With a voice no deeper, no louder, yet piercing as the sun through a magnifying glass, Madison said,
“A native of Dirt Rut am I,
Earthbound with my face to the sky,
But if I throw myself down
Hard enough at the ground
I might bounce, and may yet someday fly.”
Their mother hid her face in her hands, but Luralee swung one arm back, her hand as open as her face never was…
…and Jolly stepped in the way, and Luralee’s slap spun him twice around and with that momentum he flung his own arm up and hurled Indelible Elle’s nose into the clouds. Luralee watched it, as any predator watches movement, and it didn’t come down, and she didn’t stop watching. She was still watching when Madison and Jolly went away.
When they could no longer see the town, Madison stopped and took off their backpack. Its contents hummed and vibrated as they searched through the parts of Elle until they found her tongue, questing like an inchworm, raising its tip to test the breeze. Madison drew their arm back and squinted into the light.
“Like planting seeds,” said Jolly.
Madison paused, arm cocked. “Yup,” they said finally, and, laughing, threw Elle’s tongue high in the air, sending it spinning, farther and farther than they ever thought they could go.
Laura DeHaan is very quiet and definitely not behind you.