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Mountain Redemption

When Ottis Wilkins lost his arm,
he burned his tiny sawmill down
then sold his long-dead in-laws’ farm
and moved his family into town.
He opened up a barber shop
and hired his sons to sweep and mop
the place each day and brew coffee
for the men who came to see
the one-armed barber. Inch by inch,
the fresh-barbed rose up from the seat
like sinners from the mourners’ bench.

Petunia Eckert’s heart was broken
down and blown out like a tire.
The skinny girl she loved had taken
all Petunia’s pluck and fire
and moved to Blue Ridge. Petie took
to church and, Sundays, wailed and shook
and made the preacher smile. That summer
Pete got work as a part-time plumber.
In basements she would flail her wrench
and watch rats, terror-maddened, clamber
like sinners to the mourners’ bench.

Old Jackie Raburn didn’t hold
with killing. Even the mice and snakes
that shimmied nightly over the cold
stones of Jackie’s floors caught breaks
no other man would care to give them.
He had a shotgun, though, one trimmed
with etched brass plates. Some days he’d haul
the thing outside and discharge all
his shells at the ground and blast a trench
in it, then wait for silence to fall
like sinners to the mourners’ bench.

Whenever Sherriff Biggers drank,
and that was often, he revved his Chevy’s
engine up, sped past the bank
and dingy Main Street shops with a heavy
foot and siren wailing just
to see the townsfolk gawk as the rust-                                      
and dirt-stained cruiser barreled by.
Once, he had to shoot a guy
to death. He watched the man’s jaw clench,
his dead eyes lifted to the sky
like sinners’ from the mourners’ bench.

Preacher Greene, a handsome man,
a widower of just a year,
made all the married women fan
themselves and smile from ear to ear
when he preached of David’s lustful pride
or the spear that pierced the Savior’s side.
At home, the phone set off the hook,
he’d open to his favorite book—
Song of Songs—then feel the pinch
of chaste Paul’s thorn as his fingers shook
like sinners on the mourners’ bench.

And mountain people—hard as limestone,
rich as black silt, deep as clay—
dreamed each night of valley towns
where valley cornstalks stood up tall
like sinners from the mourners’ bench.

Posted 03/09/12
"Mountain Redemption" was originally published in Birmingham Poetry Review, vol. 39.
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