Behind Your Back

Without you, it would have happened to me. Butternut Creek, another April vacation. Both of us in pea-green waders with bamboo creels and graphite fly rods. We wandered upstream after the steel breeze blew Dad back to work. Choppy waters parted as you stalked a path to the island. Not to be outdone by little brother, I followed. Waves turned angry, held their ground, until I stumbled, until water clawed its way into my boots. Knees faltered and river tumbled over me, stole my rod, body nearly frozen—that fast—from yesterday’s ice.

Panicked, swallowing water, I hollered your name, but the wind slapped my shouts back in my face. Fifty feet away, your red-vested back to me, you heard nothing but the symphony between river and wind, while the rocks clamped themselves to my ankles, tugging me under. I lost sight of you between visions of our parents burying a second child and of you trudging through life, constantly glancing back at my ghost, forever fifty feet behind.

In the river’s final gulp, I willed you to turn and, like a cartoon, mouth agape, eyes flashed open, your teenaged bar-belled body shoved through waves, like ether, hauling my dead weight, my future loves, my regrets, my poetry, my dogs, my dreams, my every breath, to the sloped and muddy shore in Jamesville, NY.

Cloven in Twain

Butchers do it with ease. So do log splitters. I’ve seen an uncle, deft with a fillet knife, split a trout clean down the middle. No pain. No blood. Just a piece of flesh carved in half, cloven in twain. A phrase found in an ancient fairy tale. That’s how it feels with you gone. Slashed apart. Like the butcher, heart liberated from rib in one swoop of the cleaver.

Is this what it feels like to have a leg amputated? An integral part divided in an instant, discarded. Where do all those separated limbs go? And how does the body, missing its vital piece, move forward? How to persist when others can’t see the rift, the wedge chopped off with an axe; it’s that fast. What does the split birch feel when its other half is thrown into the fire?

Oh, to do it all differently. To brush death’s shock aside, to follow instinct. It’s not the visual I needed, but the final touch. Finger to flesh. Your arm, freckles, blonde hair, tanned southern skin. The chance to ask for the jacket off your back, the one I can still smell, the one I held onto, sitting behind you on the red Honda Shadow on the ride to Gainesville, open road, full sun, tall grass.

But we’ve been cloven in twain. Separated sharply. Irrevocably. Leaving no blood. Just an injury others don’t see. Here, I’m the stump the axe strikes upon over and over, chopping logs into kindling, wood into bone, bone into ash.

Feels Like Stone, Looks Like Rope, Call It Grief

Let the stars fall. Let the earth crumble. Let the dead return to their bodies. Not forever, just once a year when the veil lifts, when ghost hands float through the breeze. Take away the months of sitting behind the closed glass door above the river, huddled in a blanket in June. Though it’s been six months since he flew through the air, the outline of his body under a white sheet, the scraps of metal in a line at the side of the road, the helmet, rocking like a severed head in the wind.

The night before we lowered Stephen’s ashes in the ground, my sister and I sat in a motel parking lot behind her car. With a blow torch in her hand and me holding the marble urn, my sister melted the glue around the lid until we could lift it off, pull out the thick plastic bag of ashes, push our fingers into the sand and stone that was once the brother we loved. The brother I sat behind on the motorcycle. The brother who carefully lowered the helmet onto my head and fastened the chin strap for me. We held him sifting through our hands, lifted him to our faces and, at the very same moment, placed a pinch of him on our tongues. It was all we could think to do to keep him with us forever.

It’s been five years. The grief weaves in thick strands like veins around the heart, sharp as barbed wire. It runs like a child playing hide and seek inside us, like shadows, flickering shapes in periphery vision. Small reminders that the Universe allows us to experience so that we don’t have to spend our days crouched at gravesides, tears on our face, dirt in our hands.

Lower the white and gray marbled urn. Drop into the hole a small plastic motorcycle. Tell your brother to ride helmetless and free all over the trails of his new world. Float a picture of his favorite actress into the dark earth, so he won’t have to go alone. And when the shadow of the grave digger blocks out the sun, fill the gaps in the hole with all the tears and laughter, all the blessings and regrets, all the gifts he will need to survive Eternity. One handful of earth at a time, cover the urn, the objects, the dream of a life ended too soon.  When your breath stalls and your heart cracks, remind yourself you have five vials of his ash that will accompany you through all your days. Wear one around your neck like a talisman, so that you can live through the worst part: that first night where he will lie alone, where you lie three hours away next to your lover. When you wake the next morning, you’ve survived. The world did not crumble. Remind yourself your hallowed heart will fill again with summer’s most yellow marigolds.

That is how you’ll learn to love the night. Always somewhere behind that thick velvet veil, salvation waits, hidden at times by clouds but hanging there, magically suspended. From the stars and moon come Faith. From black holes and Venus come Constancy. From stardust of the Milky Way comes the solid embrace against wind, against rock, against the onion skin of time.

Joyce Hayden

Joyce Hayden left her teaching position in the English Department at Westfield State University in 2014 to pursue travel, writing, and oil painting. Her poetry chapbook, Lost Handprint, was published by Dandelion Press in May 2017. Her memoir, The Out of Body Girl, is forthcoming. Resilience/Reverence/Resistance, Joyce’s first solo art exhibit, was recently held at Sean Christopher Gallery in Columbus, OH. To see more of Joyce’s work, visit her website at