The Magic of Pillbug Shade

by Sally J. Johnson + Mike Jewett

These hills are still bare
No flowers yet, no buds
Midnight has taken them away

Boston, of course being a bare lightbulb type of place
this time of year. And here, in the swamp
(or the southeast, or the place we shuck oysters
not clams), this alligator landscape is warm already.
Winter having just been a noisy complaint most days.

We are drizzled in pollen, drowning in it. Dragging
at our throats and eyes and noses, not getting
a second to take in a deep breath of warmth. Not yet.
Not until the wet of cockroach season is seeped
and ready. Not until we travel away from here.
How everywhere else will have its own suffocation.
I can tell you this much if you can
believe it from that far away: there are flowers still.

We’re layered in browns, but there’s life.
The strawberries buzz with the idea of sun;
waving leaves, vying for attention, pillbug
shade just an afterthought. Here in the Hub
marsh reeds are already feeding on Canada
geese fertilizer. The burden is there on the
golf courses, grass somehow emerald.
The rain, though; it’s coming good,
and you can get rain, snow, or hail this time of
year. Sometimes all in the same day.

I wonder how much blood the moon seeps on
nights like last- cloudy, wind-beaten as an old
shack, nights when you wish you could stay up
way past bedtime with your son to see the eclipse.
His shoes are tighter now; Adidas, caked in
New England. I think about it sometimes when
I’m on the E Line heading outbound, overcrowded
with hints of old booze and perfume, stations strung
along like the stars in Orion’s belt.

I miss my days in Avondale. Stargazing, bluejays buildings nests in the yard,
lacewings swimming in humidity, and the garden I
made for me and my son. We ate baby carrots right from
the ground, dirt and all. The Christmas gift, too!
Evergreen sapling, went brown in summer. She must be bigger now.

I remember realizing Christmas was more blue than anything else.
Those trees of Michigan childhood washes, refusing the exact of green.
Seasons lacking precision. Your son will be bigger, but how
many fathers need that reminder? He is your secret
calendar, each eyelash the hand on some singing clock.
I know this by the lack of ticking in my own life, the one my mother
says I should be looking for at my age. But all I can seek
is dirt and taste and that red of moon when it comes.

If I was capable of growing anything it would be endless
acres of sunflowers. All wishes are selfish, so there’s mine.
Do you think one day I could learn patience? Enough, at least,
to show a son or someone how to dig a hole that is not a grave?
For now, a garden sounds to me like perfect failure. A dog
that won’t whine when it needs a drink of water.

If I was capable of growing anything,
it would be a pumpkin patch so full of serenity
that the moon would blush its violet light on it.

Patience? I had lessons in patience,
essences of honeyed sunlight nudging our patch of dirt
and he in tow, being patient,
reading grubs in the furrows, and when the speck of kelly
green popped up,
the excitement drove the carpenter bees into wild frenzy,
holing up in posts and beams
like agoraphobics! Better than their droney buzz frightening us.

So your Christmases were blue,
so mine were, more Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas
crackling on vinyl than anything.
As my son grows I DO need that reminder, all fathers do,
if only to remember.

Remember what?
Remember how your gardens grow?
Remember that butterflies and moths are caterpillars?
Remember to pick their child up into the air, holding them tight, letting them
touch the sky?
Remember that one day, very soon, he’ll be repotted because he outgrew
the children’s garden?

Yes, all of it and more. When an average-sized pine tree
becomes the biggest tree
in the world in his eyes. And he doesn’t know how I would
pick its cones, sticky, sappy,
and listen to its bark; the way wind soughs on pine needles.

Let your clock run wild, girl.

The smells of spotted newts and dandelions and fens
are vernal, ancient secrets
that tell themselves year after year. They’re changing,
of course; season’s times are
off. So their secrets are told earlier, in the wild purple-black
pre-dawn, secrets of dandelion
wine, and how a sting from a bee is good luck, and how
I haven’t felt that sting in ages.
I want it: the searing, boiling pain that only lasts a moment,
for it brings magic.

Your clock is your own. Your hands are your own.
They dig, plant, reap, and bleed,
and they are yours. Be aware of them. It’s innate- they’re there,
but mind them and heed them
when the clock strikes for you. It’s still early in the day.

Let your clock run wild, girl.

I did try planting a pumpkin patch;
a whole gourd’s worth of seeds. The skunks got most of them,
but a couple took root. Though
they didn’t make it past being vinelings, they were mountains for ants,
and surely that counts for something.

I’ve felt that burn of bee two times. Once when I stupidly swat at a buzz
that brushed my shoulder; scared me. Is it magic because they die?
When he was young, my brother took a hockey stick to a hornet’s
nest grounded in a baseball diamond and reminded me of the game
in anything if we are brave enough. Hornets don’t die like bees, though.

My second sting was self-inflicted: a large tattoo of a honeybee
on the back of my arm. Maybe I wanted that magic to stitch into me.
Or, I could tell my mom, I want to be a painting as much as a painter.
The weed, a daisy, the gardener, dirt under fingernails dark as metal.
Is it magic because pain and healing are part and parcel? Maybe

you’re right: let it all slip out of my hands, holding onto only
those moments like the ants. The pumpkins. Small pieces
that are worth something. Everything. Thanks for that reminder.
My little brother, covered in goalie gear, was not stung
by a single hornet. Perhaps, just once, he should have been.

The magic is in the sting.

In the halcyon days before we had our son,
my wife and I would vacation every year.
New York City, Key West, Boston. This
was when we were in Florida. Every time,
just as we hit the road, I got stung.
A firecracker on my neck, and I was happy
the son-of-a-bee-eye-tee-see-aitch was going to die.
Why should I get stung?

The second time was magic. The airport was calling us, and
ZZT! A quick zap. We started taking it as a sign of luck,
that maybe a guardian somewhere was letting us know it’s safe passage.
Fitting, the sting of a tattoo needle scars out a honeybee.
Maybe it could be luck for you, too.

Since then, I’ve loved bees.
What could grow without them, flitting
and bathing in pollen? I saw my first spring bumblebee
yesterday, and its awkward bumbling made me smile.
They love hydrangeas, purples and lavenders and blues,
shrubs that make you feel vernal;
their natural perfume drives pollinators wild.

It’s spring break, which means summer approaches-
when rains come and the heat pours in with the stick of humidity.
It also means a garden of children has outgrown their plot;
from baby’s breath to funeral lily, time scatters.
I’ll blink, and then he’ll be in first grade, my little loganberry bush,
brambles and all.

The oppressive heat that- though today’s cold makes it seem
so far away- I know is coming reminds me of thorny
berry bushes and the discovery that they were edible.
It reminds me of blackcurrant-scented hair and a girl
with stars in her eyes; when we would traipse ancient
St. Augustine’s cobblestoned roads and end up in
a cigar bar, syncopated jazz floating through the haze;
we’d smoke Cherry Dreams and talk life and where we
were headed and what we loved, and we’d get that tingly
alcohol feel, like buzzing organisms roaming our skin.
We’d leave and palms would lead us to the coquina
of Castillo De San Marcos with its haunted secret rooms.

Our strawberries are spreading over our dead lawn.
Let it take over, let the worms nourish. Most successful
invasive species, worms; they squirm in our soil
but are loyal to Britain.
What grows in your red clay?
A splendid garden, fit for the
best of bugs and men and women
and children? Maybe a Sally Holmes
to remind you of you?

I need to
start planting,
too; a box of seeds-
hundreds of varieties
of vegetables, flowers,
ornamentals- sleeps under
our bedframe. I had a seed
exchange which allowed me
an abundance of stock.
Most of the seeds
can’t germinate
now because
of age.

Maybe the 4 o’clocks, their soft flowers dancing;
the starry-eyed moon flower, too shy for daylight;
my pumpkins again. Egg carton start this year;
learn from skunks and raccoons, who teach us prudence.

I still see the vernal night sky; Lyrids streaking teardrops across the expanse,
chasing constellations
who guard us with light that ceased shining

millions of years ago. Protecting us from horcruxes made of bones. I see the
banana spider,
a yellow leaf on an invisible tree,

until it’s startled; then she pumps the web in and out, a vertical trampoline,
hoping its sticky trap
will catch. I see the holes in sapped

sugar maples plugged over; sugary sealant so they may grow. I see the
daffodils arranged in
a circle of stones; everything is circular somehow.

Even bees.

This was written for a call that Orion Magazine put out for writers to collaborate on a poem whose theme was The Growing Season. Orion partnered Sally J. Johnson and me together, and this was the result. We hope you like it.


3 thoughts on “The Magic of Pillbug Shade

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