The Epic Poem [home] [contents] [comments] [discussion] [shop]
       A Verse Narrative by Michael E. Mautner


    One plate at a time, she
    ladles watered gravy
    over mashed potatoes,
    winking at Clark from over
    Henderson's bent shoulder
    to show him her support.

    The agent doesn't see.
    He doesn't know where he is
    or how he got here
    or who these kind people are.
    The shock of flight can do that.
    It can make you forget yesterday,
    can render one as ignorant
    of what today transpires
    as a bat is blind
    to mites in the church's spires.
    Clark will take advantage of that
    in this interview between man
    and boy over vegetable stew,
    the aforementioned tubers,
    and bowls of onion soup.
    Henderson introduces himself,
    and the Kents do likewise,
    but they dine in silence otherwise,
    the scrape of metal ware on plates
    marking the moments as they pass.
    It is quite late -- the party
    having had to wait on their guest's
    regaining consciousness --
    when Clark finally asks:
    "So, was that your car
     you were trying to get into
     in town before?"

    Henderson says, "Yes.  It was."

    Clark: "And, what brings you to Smallville?," as
    Ma retires, leaving to Clark the task
    of inquiry, and the agent's answers.

    --    An assignment.

          --    Looking into the Klan?

    --     Wasn't exactly my plan, no.
          I was supposed to go
          from town to town chasing down
          rumors of sanctioned lynchings.
          No arrests; just investigating.

          --    Lynchings sanctioned by whom?

    --    The local law.

          --    Then there's a big flaw
                in your having come here.

    --    What's that?

          --    Hasn't been a lynching here.
                Not for six years.

    --    Colored man?

          --     Yes.

    --    That explains my reception.
          Local law involved?

          --    Sheriff told me not to ask,
                something to which,    at the time,
                I took exception.

    --    'At the time'?  What about now?

          --    Six years, these six years,
                with all Smallville's been through?
                It makes a difference.

    --    How's that, Kent?
          What kind of difference?

          --    My Pa thought he knew who'd done it
                and started looking into it.
                Bought himself nothing but trouble.
                It wasn't worth it.  Few cared then
                (Pa and I both felt the chill
                 of dozens of cold shoulders),
                and now?  With this town bubbling
                over into recovery
                and uniting like family?
                Even fewer will.
                We have to care for our own first.
                And the men?  Pa's suspects?
                They've borne the brunt of the worst
                of the storms, the Depression
                and everything else.
                Your courts couldn't punish them worse.
                Besides, they didn't mean it: to kill.
                They just got drunk is all.

    (Clark's head sinks and he stares
    into his empty bowl.)
    Again, the agent:

    --    Clark, you sound like someone
          talking from someone else's defeat.
          Did they beat your Pa?

          --    Nothing like that.
                These men aren't that type.
                They're not bad men by nature;
                they just lost control is all.
                It was the times,
                their environment.

    --    I've heard that argument
          before.  It's untenable.
          Men are made of more than clay,
          Clark; we're not so moldable.
          Tell me what happened that day.
          What did they do?

          --    Nothing that could be proved.
                There was a fire that burned
                the barn and Pa's metal shop
                down.  He blamed John Ross,
                who was our neighbor then
                and one of his oldest friends,
                but Ma made Pa drop it.

    --    But now you take it seriously?

          --    I've suspected since Pa died.
                Ross got all emotional
                at the funeral, talked about political
                things he and Pa had done before I was born.
                I started asking around.

    --    And found?

          --    A stone wall.  People altogether
                stopped talking to me for awhile,
                so I dropped it too.
                Hadn't thought about it, much,
                until I saw them coming for you.

    --    You know who those men were?

          --    Yes, I do.
    --    How do you know?

          --    Ross and his stalwarts meet
                at the Grange Hall every week.
                It's something we don't speak of,
                but we all know who's hanging on,
                who's still Klan.
                The whole town knows.  To a man.

    --    And you think they killed
          this colored man, this....

          --    Joe.  I don't know.

    --     But you do know who was chasing me?

          --    Yes.

    --    And one of them was this Ross?

          --    Yes.

    --    And he's their boss?

          --    Yes.

    --    Assaulting an agent is a federal offense.
          I can make an arrest.

          --    But you need a warrant.
          And you need me to testify
          when you go to apply for it.

    --    You'd object?

          --    Yes.

    --    Why?

          --    It's like what I said before.
                The town in its entirety
                matters more than any one man.
                A community on its land
                is like a family at home:
                you've got to keep it whole,
                though the effort may take its toll
                on outsiders like Joe.
                Even though he was my friend,
                in the end I have to recognize
                that the too-flawed lives
                of a few Smallvillers,
                members of my community,
                have to take precedence
                over vengeance for a stranger.

    There is a long silence.
    Henderson has heard in Clark's speech
    nothing but simple prejudice --
    country narrow-mindedness preached
    with unusual eloquence --
    but he is unable to express
    the roots of his outrage at this,
    now all but visible.  This boy
    is obviously capable
    of much good, but....He gropes
    for the right words.  They do not come.
    He is still dazed -- from dizzy flight,
    from having fled from a fight
    he can scarcely recall --
    and Kent's complacent rural
    ethic so amazes him,
    he almost falls for it himself.
    But, that pit of moral dread,
    wherein most people are bred
    (and where more than will ever
    admit it dwell) cannot
    absorb this agent of right,
    of Christendom's fading light.
    From something he once read,
    Henderson conceives a lesson,
    something simple, which,
    he thinks, will spell out better
    those principles by which
    and for which he lives
    than any lecture he could give:

    --     Clark.  Have you ever eaten chinese?

          --    Food?  Here?  No.

    --    Well, I did once, in San Francisco,
          when I was there on a case.
          It was at a restaurant, a place
          called Analects,
          named after a book by Confucius.
          He's like their Jesus, only less.
          Sayings of his, on respect and duty
          and on how to fit in
          to a family or community,
          were all over the wallpaper.
          One struck me in particular.
          It went something like this:
          Foreigner says to Confucius,
          "In my country, there is a good man.
           We knew he was a good man
           when his father stole a lamb,
           because the man reported it."
          Then Confucius answers,
          "Good men are different in my land.
           A father shelters his son
           and a son his father,
           for this is righteousness."
          Now Kent, whose side are you on?
          You agree with Confucius?

          --    In principle, yes.

    --    Want to know why I remember this?

          --    Sure.  Yes.

    --    What's happening in China today,
          Clark, what's its present condition?

                --    Civil war.  Foreign invasion.

    --    Yes.  Hundreds of Chinese smallvilles
          have ceased to exist in the upheaval.
          That's happened before.
          In America.  Hasn't it?

          --    In the War Between the States, you mean?

    --    Yes, in our Civil War.
          And what were we fighting for then?

          --    Southerners for Independence,
                the North for Union,
                and both over Slavery.

    --    So, our choices were what?
          You don't see the connection
          I'm trying to make?

          --    Between what?  No, I don't.

    Flustered, Henderson rises,
    his heart racing with that passion
    of ideas that smothers fatigue
    quick as salt on a stove fire.
    He speaks, aiming his words afar
    distant, as serious as if
    Clark were the League of Nations:

          Clark, the Founders propped up
          their Republic on two pillars,
          Freedom and Property, but they let
          some pursue the latter
          taking from others the former.
          Where humans were owned as chattel,
          that could be no Land of the Free,
          and the contradiction sparked a battle,
          one that had to be.
          Today we dwell in the world
          won of that war, but still let
          some men treat others like cattle.
          We use the excuse that "those people"
          aren't ours; not our brothers,
          and we are not their keepers.
          Clark, it's only an excuse.
          I read that piece from Confucius
          not long after the Japanese
          first marched into Manchuria.
          I remember thinking then that
          if Americans keep thinking
          so narrowly -- like we have been;
          like the Chinese do, if that story
          and their present situation
          are any indication -- then
          we're bound to be next in line
          for an attack of fascism.
          Whether it comes from beyond
          our borders, or from within,
          doesn't matter.  In a hamlet
          like Smallville or a Chinese village,
          sure, people can stick together
          like they do when they're a family;
          but (think about it), then you get to be
          so every stranger is a suspect,
          even a countryman whose interests
          are the same as yours, just because
          he's from another town or state
          half a continent away.
          Family-type loyalty alone,
          Clark, can't build a nation,
          and you've got to have a country,
          not just a "community"
          if you want to survive
          in the twentieth century.
          Stretch that older notion --
          tribes, clans, or plain localism --
          and it flounders.
          Everyone can't be brothers.
          Why, if we were all meant to be like kin,
          we'd've all been made with one color skin.
          Fortunately, our Founding Fathers
          didn't say we had to be kin,
          they just made it so we all can be
          citizens.  Joe was an American,
          Clark, and that's the only "family"
          that matters.  That's the choice our
          Civil War made for us.  There can't be
          any black sheep in this house.
          We can't let the feelings that made
          slavery and secession possible
          stay here disguised as brotherhood.
          Let the Chinese have them; they're bound
          to weaken them.  Division
          opens a people up to new forms
          of slavery -- like Communism,
          a form of brotherly love that's been
          drained of all true compassion
          -- subtle kinds of servitude
          that sneak up on people
          like a wolf in sheep's clothing
          and bare their fangs.
          That's what the Chinese're doomed to,
          and that's where you'll be confined, too,
          if you don't lift yourself off the farm,
          if you don't overcome this hick kind of charm
          you're cursed with....

    And Henderson starts to hack and cough,
    and all but falls back into his seat.
    When he has recovered, he asks
    where the bathroom is.  Clark points.
    The agent goes, leaving our hero
    to repeat every argument in his head
    until he all but goes mad.  And who
    can think in his mother's cluttered house
    anyway?  He must be out,
    out the dining room window
    and into his own element,
    his home in the open air.
    Let us follow him there.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46
47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 

NEXT CANTO <font size=-1>NEXT CANTO</font>

Superman The American Way Cap!
The Epic Poem


Powered by