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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Section 3: Absence

Joe Wilkins

Joe Wilkins
Certain Birds
Sipping gin and tonics on the back deck, we watched the children gather their tools—shovel, rake, spade, trowel, clamshell, pickaxe, rock bucket, digging bar—and smiled at the way they planned and schemed, their small arms straining to hold all they carried. Despite our snickers and grins, our banter, they marched—clumsily, resolutely—down the stone path and opened and closed the old garden gate and save for the tops of their tousled heads disappeared then into the sunflowers.
How serious children are, how ingenuous and silly. We clucked our tongues and told stories about this one and that one until we started repeating ourselves. In the silence we sipped our drinks, shifted our chairs more fully into the shade. We talked of other things. Of the various slights and outrages perpetrated against us by superiors and co-workers, of the failures and disappointments of the latest President, of the prices of camembert, gasoline, dentistry, organic fertilizer, online subscription viewing services. They’re all hot days these days, and despite the shade of the patio umbrella we soon began to wilt. We reached for our G&Ts and tipped the cool tumblers to our lips, and kept tipping until the edifices of melting ice dislodged and crashed down upon our noses, and we understood then the precise emptiness of our glasses. We didn’t know what to do until one of us—the most industrious and conscientious of us, the one most given to fits of shame and inadequacy—stood and put on a brave face and said, Why don’t I make up another pitcher? We exhaled with relief. We waited and fanned ourselves and in our discomfort laughed at small things.
Where are the children? Though one of us wondered this aloud, it was as if all of us had thought it, as if we had all simultaneously realized we hadn’t for a long time seen the children torturing their dolls or bathing their faces in the watery blue light of various handheld screens. We sat up, blinked, looked around. We wondered, a moment, at the bloom of dust rising above the bright, straining faces of the sunflowers, the indistinct sounds of shovels and small voices— and then we remembered and relaxed into the outdoor, all-weather cushions adorning our chairs and again took up the business of waiting for our drinks.
Later, the heat almost unbearable now, we took turns calling down into the hole. We said,
It’s getting late. They called up, We know. We said, We’re making veal parmigiana—your favorite. They said, We’re not hungry. We said, You must be thirsty. They said, We’ve hit water. We said, But what about the birds, the ones we used to see in the tangled trees along the river? They didn’t say anything to that, and so we concluded we must have made our point and the children would be up soon. We breathed more easily then, even rolled our eyes at their antics— Kids!
We waited a long time. The sky above us wide and shading toward an imperial blue. The acrid, evening wind skulking among the drooping sunflowers. The hot night came down around us.
Finally, we got down on our knees and put our hands to the dug earth and tilted our heads and listened—and we heard, far off, the snicking sound of cut soil, the chink of iron blades stabbing at the rocks. We leaned that much closer to the mouth of the hole. We heard what sounded like running water, a flapping we took for flames, and then, from a great distance, the rising notes of a kind of song—a song without words, a song built of the throaty syllables before speech, a song like those of certain birds.
Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry, winner of a 2014 GLCA New Writers Award—an honor that has previously recognized early work by the likes of Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, and Alice Munro—and two previous books of poetry, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. His most recent full-length collection, When We Were Birds, was selected by Billy Collins for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series and is now out from the University of Arkansas Press. As the winner of the Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, Wilkins and his family spent the summer of 2015 living in a remote cabin along the Rogue River in the Klamath Mountains of Oregon. Wilkins makes his permanent home with his family in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College. You can find him online at



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