We were classmates. He was a country kid, like me, and like me, he was condemned to ride the bus for miles and miles. I dreaded that bus every day of my life –it was a place of fear and intimidation and endless cruelty.
On this particular day, he sat down next to me and everyone began teasing us. They were loud and relentless. I was desperate to make them stop, make it stop, make it all stop just stop just stop, and at some point I picked up my empty lunch box and bashed it over his head.
Did the teasing end? I don’t remember. What I do remember is how he held his hands up to protect himself. The poem below brought me back to those years of fear and that day on the bus. Kindness is in part an act of self-preservation. Had I just sat still and endured the ride I could have spared myself the lifelong memory of having hurt a kid like me, another kid who was only trying to get home.
Poem for the Woods, by Catherine Pierce
Not as I would dream them now, not with growls
and twig snaps, not with dark birds and thorned vines
I’ve invented (keening blackwing, violencia). Not late-dayblood-
sun-dappled, not refuge of men equipped
with knives and lust, not a mouth into which you might
venture and not return, no, nothing like that.
This is a poem for the woods as I knew them,
shaded and cool behind the Novaks’ house.
They seemed endless, but there was a shortcut
to Fairblue Swim Club. They held no growls,
no spikes. Only squirrels skittering, plunking acorns
down the canopy. We’d been warned of poison ivy,
but never found it. We’d been warned of rotten limbs,
but none fell. One muddy, sun-laced afternoon, we took salt
from the pantry and ventured out to where the rocks
teemed with slugs. I’d like to say our cruelty
had to do with power—human girls versus torpidity—
but really it was our curiosity, pure and unnuanced.
We wanted to see mineral against membrane.
We wanted to see something living melt. If I could,
I’d find my younger self in those woods and stop her.
I’d say, Someday you’ll carry your cruelties with you
and you’ll never be able to set them down. Keep walking now.
Keep pretending you know of nothing but kindness.
For more information on Catherine Pierce, please check out her website.