The Folding Boat
Lewis kept his linen trousers clean among the sooty forges on Virginius
and did his writing at the Inn at Harpers Ferry. The town distrusted him
for writing, and for seriousness, and for his hurry,
and for commissions from that bastard Jefferson.
They loved him for his credit letter, sure.
He was hot, but careful. If he could have
peened those joints and rolled that bar himself he would have done.
And he wanted fine, Lord, just too much for us
and for the boss, drunk all the time and muttering
about the jobs he'd had to put aside.
But Lewis never heard. He’d chaff a bit but smile at us, and then
gaze down the valley, deaf to hammering and all the boss's
glooming murmur. He'd put up one tall boot and watch
across the flat rut-street and down the Shenando,
across the Join Pool, down Patowmack through the water-gap,
East down the roar of Left Spout, and downhill to the ocean, seemed like,
chin a tilt of duty but his eyes soft as Virginia June.
He was all alone, nor man nor slave to tote his guns and iron.
In that town of money men with nothing but a paper from the President;
but every time he went to try the boat I’d drop my work and go,
haul frames and boil the glue. The bosses daggered me,
all us boys, but let us go, most likely hoped to hasten
it along, get this phenomenon all shet his shop,
off west and scalped and rotten where he sure belonged,
and us to harmony again and swimming in the dusk.
We’d cart it to the pools, and boil and tar the skins
(until he tried tarpaulin, to test the frame he said,
aware that Bison, Elk or Deer would have to do it in the end).
One Sunday whole we fit and glued but sank it in a second,
with Lewis smiling, sinking, in salute like Gustav on the Amphion.
We were slow, but Lewis kept that blue-eyed dignity.
Mid-June he built it at Virginius and poled it dry
down past the new piers out to Maryland, grinning some,
and downstream out of sight past Sandy Hook.
The horses hauled it back. The boss was even seen to smile.
On Saturday he woke me up at dawn. We laded
deeply, stone and firewood, and pushed it off with poles together,
down the rapids all the way past Wever’s Mill. He sang a quiet song
beneath the sound of water. She rode high and true. We could
have poled that boat to Sweden if we'd liked.
But just above the weir we folded it and waited for the mules
then walked back to the ferry silently. The next day he was gone.