It’s Christmas. The turkey vultures
– For Michael and Barbara
It’s Christmas. The turkey vultures
have climbed into the choir loft of a nearby tree,
seven, twelve, fifteen of them ready for carols
we are too far to hear. They look sharp
backlit in their black frocks, their monastic heads
bowed & serious. Their songs all in minor keys.
Across the street another five have alighted
like Santa’s reindeer on a neighbor’s roof.
Some omen. Some harbinger. They remain
unfazed by flashing lights, by inflatable snowmen
suddenly resuscitated, by the old world
curses of a grandfather worried about
evil eyes & wives tales. These are beaks that know
carrion, talons that carry death over
backyards, patios, children pointing them out.
Winged, ferocious, hideous & full of grace
they could be seraphim. We are
miles from steeple or cemetery.
The community’s lone lake remains ice-scabbed.
The gazebo overlooking it frowns despite
its crown of holiday lights, each bulb a blazing
scarab. There are no crows or pigeons,
only the vultures. Already,
the remains of gift giving burn in fireplaces—
hearth smoke & kitchen scents mingling.
My brother wants to know what can be done
about the buzzards, talks about shooting them
with garden hose spray or shaking that tree
viciously, for they are awful & ugly & blessed all
at once, & like any of us, clutching carnage &
redemption both, our redundant lists
of naughty & nice. How radiant
the afternoon sky in the bay window, even
as occasional shadows darken the welcome mat.
Three bats scrape the undercarriage of dusk,
circle concentrically then swoop for summer’s
remaining insects. They are scraps of darkness
against the darkening sky, the way certain notes
in a nocturne’s melody resonate more,
cables vibrating from hammer strikes, sustained
almost a visible shiver, even as being played
by an unknown neighbor. E minor. Chopin.
The whole thing unsteady, uncertain, almost
unrecognizable, like the self in distant memory. Smoke
from a leaf fire a worn scarf against windsweep.
I didn’t use to believe in ghosts despite a childhood
watching Chiller films Saturdays past midnight.
I didn’t believe in mad scientists & undead.
Then I learned about the Bomb in class,
imagined being trapped in a basement shelter
with girls I had no courage to speak with
outside fantasy; the yellow & black fallout signs
that were everywhere it seemed, announced the inevitable.
Yet here we are nearly 40 years later, in Appalachia,
in an America that continues to advertise
custard cones, holiday parades, & Elvis impersonators
appearing at Autumn Glory band shells. For years
people kept seeing the King or his ghost—
the past unrelenting. Its soundtrack all nocturnes &
Return to Sender, the occasional riff of swing
or bebop. The junior high kids, instead, fall in love
on the school bus or in Math class or during
active shooter drills, teacher saying any one of you
might be a victim, so follow directions. This is how
we learn heartache, how even a name can be haunted
because a name can be a house we live in for years
walking in the empty rooms of its syllables.
We open the windows just to hear the beloved
breathing until that breath becomes the very back-beat
of our evenings. The properties of heartbreak & loss
all so similar, their overgrown lawns, their one lit rooms
behind curtains, envelopes uncollected in mailboxes.
No one knows what happened, though kids walking past
invent narratives, each one more horrific until
all that remains are the rumors themselves—
the plots like that of thrillers, all sadness or else
the threat of tragedy, & even this is American.
The piano appears again, this time Gershwin, more
furtive, further away. A feral cat rushes from wild fescue
a field mouse, metronomic tail swinging, clamped
in its fangs. Years ago this might have been an omen.
To the distant west strobe lightning flashes without thunder.
Gerry LaFemina is the author of numerous collections of poetry, fiction, and criticism. In 2022 he’ll have two new books released: The Pursuit: A Meditation on Happiness (creative nonfiction) and The American Ruse (poems). He is a Professor of English at Frostburg State University, serves as a mentor in Carlow University’s MFA program, is a Fulbright specialist in Writing and American Culture, and fronts the punk rock band The Downstrokes.