April 23, 1845     Evening.
Missoula, Montana Territory


Here, mountains rise up out of flat land
like womens' vast and open, untouched breasts.
This is cattle, and sheep country I tell you,
but is also the land of the bear, mountain lion, and
a native people who do not yet understand manifest destiny,
but nonetheless, know my presence as a threat.

In this wilderness, I do not expect leniency,
neither for my weakness nor my sex.

Having given up every comfort,
I am here on this arduous plain
to make my way with nature, locate
courage, and live in such a manner
that each sense fully exercises its purpose,

See this valley with its near small river,
streams, and mountain stands
of pine and hardwood groves
where I search out quail, squirrel,
rabbit, deer, each in their season.

Hunting, I track the scent of their spoor.
Follow their trails.
Never fail to notice each trunk and bough,
stone outcropping, or clearing of fern,
moss and ground pine.

Come every day to a more intimate knowledge
of each tree's marks, nests, earth's burrows.

My fingertips sketch the deep cut effects of lightning,
and the lesser scars of wind, hail, water high and low;
believe in the innate worth of what the land reveals
as deeply as I believe in language and God.

Once a month or so I ride the fence line.

These evenings, at end of day,
I stand upon one square foot
of this monumental truncated plain--
born of mountains' dissipation--
and hold my hand out to you,
sweet, fresh things slipping between my fingers,
palm always open in cautious invitation.

My cotton skirt billows in the prevailing
Northeast wind, which also coaxes my hair behind
and to one side. Individual strands glint
in the sun's last formidable push of light.
I lift my head to meet this conclusion of warmth
on my face more fully and in doing so,
bare my neck to you.

You understand gesture.

You know I come long before you see me.
Today, having smelled the blood of the plants,
fresh baked bread, lard, garlic, and my own compact odor,
you choose to come close, challenging.

For years we have come some dusks
to meet in this, our domain,
my mare always chestnut,
tethered to the same fallen oak at wood's edge.

I rest my rifle against a locust post,
hold out my hand once more
through the woven and barbed wire fence
that divides the pasture from disorder.

Once comfortable, I locate and register the position,
and thus am able to stand quite still for a long time.
Reckon, laughing, you must smell
the fresh bread and garlic supper on my hands.

Your pacing--
mirrored in long shade imitations--
seems closer today than before,
yet still some distance.

If I take a step forward,
I am certain you will run from me
in the same manner a shadow canters
across a field in advance of fast-moving clouds.

And so, it comes as a surprise when you stop,
stand a moment, turn, nostrils flared,
then walk Eastward toward me,
smooth face shifting with the breeze,
trying to catch me there in it,
head shaking in genuflection,
soles raising dust in brown smudges
which drift above the close-cropped grass.

You sense my fear and
knowing you must sense it,
it grows in me--a thistle.

You stand wary just beyond reach.
I search to find and hold your eyes.
As I approach the fence--
you take a partial retreat.

As I place my left foot on the second highest tier
of the wire chessboard, North-South division of our land,
the body memory of two spent summers returns.

I feel again and embrace the pain that shot down my arms,
and lodged itself permanently in my shoulders;
am once more the ardent lover pounding into,
pulling up and out,
pounding again,
carving each of 540 three-foot deep post holes from my partner earth's skin,
promising with each stroke not to cease before the satisfaction of

And then, one August day in 1820,
the fence's circumscription is stretched, and finally defined.

Halfway up the fence now, mounting at a post,
mindful to place my feet nearest the nails,
I gather the folds of my skirt high and close
in order to see, and not catch its thin fabric
on the narrow, iron blades.

I swing my left leg in a wide arc above the barbs.

Suddenly--as it does between these many high swells--
the sun takes cover behind the close mountains,
and immediately brings the entire valley into their shadow.

Again I pause and stand quite still,
one part East, the other West, across the fence.
Stand until night presses so hard I barely see you,
but can hear our accusations of cowardice echo,
and smell your musk confidence on the wind.
I raise the East-most limb
and simultaneously push off toward the last clouds.

In this concluding light I slowly straighten,
spread my legs, anchor them to the earth,
and hold out my hand. No fence now between us.

I close my eyes, clear my body of fear;
feel the wind's direction shift;
allow the twin chills of desire and apprehension
to evaporate and float off in its mouth;
shiver at the touch of my clothing
as it strokes the hair of my legs.

This bread, this dusk, this landscape,
all I have, is offered up in one pure gesture.

I hold no rope or weapon hidden.

There is no past, no present,
only the next second and the next.
Your exhalations in the air tell me this is so,
and I confirm with gentle syllables, that I hear and believe.

I open my stance an inch further.
Rock North-South twice to find perfect balance.
There is only stillness, and our breathing.

If you will only come to me.


Either you will come to me or not.

No cricket,
no young frog,
no night or evening bird interrupts.

Either you will come to me or not.

And that is what i want.

Jan McLaughlin

Copyright © Jan McLaughlin
March 1996

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Created 1995/8/26. Updated last on 2000/7/17.