Ancient Ritual*

Before the giant combines

came to Southern Illinois

summers in the backlands

far from the interstate rolled

with a rhythm all their own.


After sowing crops in May

we would thresh the wheat and oats

from stooks that browned in June,

leaving berries for July

between the clover and alfalfa.


In the lull before the autumn

harvest, timed like soundings

from some ancient ritual, we

would weed the high corn fields

with bare hoes in hand


so Lathrop's stand stood

sleek and dark and shined

against the sky, and feathered

past the rolling glass

of macadam passersby.


Every August seemed a passage

when Grandpa and I

in summer's highest heat

with hardened blisters on

attacked the northern forty.


Despite his four rows

to my two, he spoke easily

of bible folk and red sky rain

and what made age-old

family enmities subside.


In bed at night I listened,

forgot my shoulders were unstrung,

ignored the facial slits the blades

inflicted, the thirst so deep

my skin drank dust.


I knew then I knew more

than jimson weed and butterprint.

I learned why the neighbors slowed

to feel the earth aright again

when they passed by Grandpa's place.


Jerome L. McElroy

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*Accepted Poetic Voices (May 2000).