Teaching How to Curse; Learning How to Pray

Maybe I was seven or eight
When close friend and our two fathers
Went fishing in early morning hours,
Down on a moonless night in the Ozarks.
Gas lanterns hanging from sides of boat
Attracted ten thousand thousand insects,
Drawing more fish than we could count.

I could feel the boat gently swaying,
Fish tugging against the lines.
Smells of oil and gasoline, hint of wet rope,
Sweat of human flesh,
Living fish on bottom of the narrow keel—
Odors of the world outside the boat
Drifting upon the slightest breeze—
Every smell of warm summer’s air
As I inhaled deeply, wavering lantern light,
Layered motion of lake’s water
Washing against cradle of the craft.

Then nightmare of the insect world—
Worse than heavy hailstorm,
Random traffic never ceasing,
Darkness beyond the pool of lantern’s light
Impenetrable to sight.
“God damn these bugs!” the other father cursed.
Ordained Elder of our church screaming in the night—
“God damn these bugs!  God damn these bugs!”

Ah, the honest teaching of deliberate prayer
Shouted in desperation of frantic nighttime air.
Thank God he was bald and had no hair!
They came, hard-shelled and soft,
Biting and stinging, chirping, buzzing, droning—
Crawling legs upon my skin and scalp,
Flying into nose, eyes and mouth.
As a million misguided drones they attacked,
Pelting themselves against hull of boat
As others chose to end their lives
Burning, kamikaze against hot lantern glass,
Relentless ping of bodies, frying, dying,
Falling into water, fish rising for the feast.

Some at least had decency to kill themselves
Before drawing human blood.
Even now I cringe at old dark memories,
Dreams of plague of small winged beetles,
White Mayflies flapping, buzzing
Until I could hardly hear Elder’s screaming curse.

Fish filling every stringer, the icebox,
Then filling bottom of the boat— flapping,
Gasping as they slowly died,
Contorting death, mouths opening, shutting,
Bloodless stench of death…..

Later, we turned off the lights.
I looked high beyond spectrum of
Surrounding darkness, galaxies of scattered stars
Shining brightly as I’d never seen stars shine before.
I did not know enough numbers to count their number,
But learned that night the whole
Was much greater than any part.

Slowly, I read open textbook of constellations,
Heroes of ancient myth spread out on field of ink,
And the milky haze of Milky Way,
Arced above as silent benediction….
I could hardly tear myself away,
Gazing directly into Glory’s open eyes.
One night, so long ago….
When I was taught to curse
And learned to pray.

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