The School Bag

The Swimmers

Allen Tate

SCENE: Montgomery County, Kentucky, July 1911

Kentucky water, clear springs, a boy fleeing
     To water under the dry Kentucky sun,
     His four little friends in tandem with him, seeing

Long shadows of grapevine wriggle and run
     Over the green swirl: mullein under the ear
     Soft as Nausicaä’s palm; sullen fun

Savage as childhood’s thin harmonious tear:
     O fountain, bosom source undying-dead
     Replenish me the spring of love and fear

And give me back the eye that looked and fled
     When a thrush idling in the tulip tree
    Unwound the cold dream of the copperhead.

— Along the creek the road was winding; we
     Felt the quicksilver sky. I see again
     The shrill companions of that odyssey:

Bill Eaton, Charlie Watson, ‘Nigger’ Layne
     The doctor’s son, Harry Duèsler who played
     The flute, and Tate, with water on the brian.

Dog-days: the dusty days where rain delayed
     Hung low on poison-oak and scuppernong
     And we were following the active shade

Of water, that bells and bickers all nigh long.
     ‘No more’n a mile,’ Layne said. All five stood still.
     Listening, I heard what seemed at first a song;

Peering, I heard the hooves come down the hill.
     The posse passed, twelve horse; the leader’s face
     Was worn as limestone on an ancient sill.

Then, as sleepwalkers shift from a hard place
     In bed, and rising to keep a formal pledge
     Descend a ladder into empty space,

We scuttled down the bank below a ledge
     And marched stiff-legged in our common fright
     Along a hog-track by the riffle’s edge:

Into a world where sound shaded the sight
     Dropped the dull hooves again; the horsemen came
     Again, all but the leader: it was night

Momently and I feared: eleven same
     Jesus-Christers unnumbered and unmade,
     Whose Corpse had died again in dirty shame.

The bank then leveling in a speckled glade,
     We stopped to breathe above the swimming-hole;
     I gazed at its reticulated shade
Recoiling in blue fear, and felt it roll
     Over my ears and eyes and lift my hair
     Like seaweed tossing on a sunk atoll.

I rose again. Borne on the copper air
     A distant voice green as a funereal wreath
     Agains a grave: ‘That dead nigger there.’

The melancholy sheriff slouched beneath
     A giant sycamore; shaking his head
     He plucked a sassafras twig and picked his teeth:
‘We come too late.’ He spoke to the tired dead
     Whose ragged shirt soaked up the viscous flow
     Of blood in which It lay discomfited.

A butting horse-fly gave one ear a blow
     And glanced off, as the sheriff kicked the rope
     Loose from the neck and hooked it with his toe

Away from the blood. —I looked back down the slope:
     The friends were gone that I had hoped to greet. —
     A single horseman came at a slow lope

And pulled up at the hanged man’s horny feet;
     The sheriff noosed the feet, the other end
     The stranger tied to his pommel in a neat

Slip-knot. I saw the Negro’s body bend
     And straighten, as a fish-line cast transverse
     Yields to the current that it must subtend.

The sheriff’s Goddamn was a murmured curse
     Not for the dead but for the blinding dust
     The boxed the cortège in a cloudy hearse

And dragged it towards out town. I knew I must
     Not stay till twilight in that silent road;
     Sliding my bare feet into the warm crust,

I hopped the stonecrop like a panting toad
     Mouth open, following the heaving cloud
     That floated to the court-house square its load

Of limber corpse that took the sun for shroud.
     There were three figures in the dying sun
     Whose light were company where three was crowd.

My breath crackled the dead air like a shotgun
     As, sheriff and the stranger disappearing,
     The faceless head lay still. I could not run

Or walk, but stood. Alone in the public clearing
     This private thing was owned by all the town,
     Though never claimed by us within my hearing.