The woman has a Salt Lake stormcloud for a hairdo.
She yells from her wheelchair like a man
whose prayers have gone unanswered for years.
There’s no one else in the hallway.
The flesh of her neck hangs like a loose smock
she threw on to cover her neck.
Her blue veins telegraph sickness
like sunlight through a pioneer’s muntin windows,
the motes of his frustrations with God floating in the filthy air
that his elders will promise is there as a kind of test,
and the news, too, floats in this morning
from the Sierra Nevadas
that his sister—
she didn’t make it—
but what’s unspeakable
is what the families did
when the snows got bad,
eight foot drifts blocking the pass,
and the wagon trains stuck
and the food run out
of course that’s what we do when our luck leaves us dry
our best to survive
we put on a smile
The Spirit of God like a fire is burning
and rotate Eliott’s hewn-off leg
that Brother Murphy had trouble sawing from the body
given the freezing temperatures
over the flame roasting
as those perfect hogs back in Kirtland,
sweet skin crackling at the first celebrations of the just-consecrated temple and town,
joyous hoedowns where family and kinfolk
gathered ’round and knew that we
had something to hope for—
a summer’s crops yielding more than could eat,
the butchery of a herd salt-cured and promising
to last through the dying frosts of February,
and Brother Smith’s sacrament sermons
on the United Order assuring that poverty and doubt
would be eradicated within the Church.
back to that feast.
That’s what Great-Grandma Dolana
would say after finishing the prayer,
laughing at the bounty spread thick
over her threadbare heirloom tablecloth
in that cramped, carpeted kitchen
in Ephraim. I’d always get sick
on these Thanksgiving trips. The butter-loaded Danish gravy
and gelatinous fat quivering
on the brown meat.
She brought back stories
from the coal mine every night.
Never trust anybody, she’d say.
Samuel Cheney is from Centerville, Utah. He is the recipient of scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences, and his poem “On the Footage of Monet Painting” was awarded the 2019 Erskine J. Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Copper Nickel, Narrative, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Western Humanities Review, Whiskey Island, Forklift, and Ohio in the last year, and is coming soon in The Literary Review, the Missouri Review, North American Review, and Salmagundi. He is a Lecturer in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, and lives in Baltimore.
“And Are We Yet Alive” originally appeared in The American Journal of Poetry.
See more of Samuel Cheney’s work in our upcoming Granary issue.