Halfway up the mountain, just below the broken down garage where the tractor and the rusted truck were kept, in an interior dominated by grease, dust, patina and ageless imprint of mountain people generations removed from the old country, a young boy would sit in thunderstorms brought by Norse gods, or dream of a milk-filled sun.
Below this mountain relic, as he walked, there was a place of hewn stone beneath giant hemlocks: huge mortise and tenon rectangular blocks lying in ruins as though waiting on some mythical giant to raise them in place, while propped against a tree, leaning sideways, a large stone carved in the shape of an unopened vampire’s casket.
A mystery. No one knew of their origin.
Walking on there was a giant red mulberry tree and paw paws beyond that, a sacred place where the fruit became the red-tipped nipples of a forest mother, the paw paws yellow tinged breasts, trees themselves the body, vine wrapped limbs, the arms, legs, the bark sinew and nerves, bloodsap, all in this womb place, this beginning time.
He would fill his mouth with the autumn blood fruit of the mulberries, taste the yellow life in the paw paw and know a time before time began.
Now, fifty years later, there is no grease filled garage, no mulberry or paw paw. There is not even silence, for a hundred yards up the mountain, the great earth tearing machines eat away at the land like a coyote gnawing on some discarded carcass. Eating the black coal that is darker than any Dante circle, the world of men consuming self, never knowing that when all the paw paws are gone, nothing remains save a tattered remnant of humanity poorly knowing only a dead Columbus myth sailed here, preached out from mountain pulpits, held in hard bitter hands.
“Where Have All the Paw Paws Gone” first appeared in Lothlorien Poetry Journal.
Ralph Monday is Professor of English at Roane State Community College in Harriman, TN. He is widely published in journals. Books include All American Girl and Other Poems, 2014. Empty Houses and American Renditions, 2015. Narcissus the Sorcerer, 2015. Bergman’s Island & Other Poems, 2021, The Book of Appalachia (forthcoming), and a humanities text, published by Kendall/Hunt, 2018. Vol. 2 of the humanities text is expected in 2023.
** Featured image of Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) with fruit – Scott Bauer, USDA, Wikimedia