BOOK THREE: KANSAS BLEEDS
Now come the days of dark villainy,
of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini,
and it is a crippled hero's hour,
the time of FDR's fireside chats.
Before they lost electric power
(Pa's crude wires were gnawed away by rats)
Clark heard that voice on the radio,
the nation's new sire, declare that fear,
that vampire of the spirit,
was its only true foe;
and, because he is remembering it
now, he is ignoring the teacher
as she talks of current affairs.
Out the schoolroom window he stares,
blankly surveying the sad
cadaver across the square.
The building's steeple, though it sags
in the sultry air, is tenanted
(by mice with wings), but is attended
by no people. Its choir sings
only in memory, its bells
silent, though the outer paint peels.
How must the shades feel, wonders Kent,
what emotions can a ghost know?
He is thinking of old Joe.
Winter last, 1933:
Ellis was too tired to care for
the abandoned church, so he hired
Joe as caretaker, said a prayer for
Smallville, and left. That made Ma sad.
She said it was a sin, and madness,
to cast out a preacher like they'd done.
There'd be hell to pay for it, surely;
but, Clark had gained a friend thereby.
Often, after school, he'd go by
the church, scoop snow off two heavy
metal doors, open them with no
effort, and drop in on Joe
in the Negro’s cellar flat.
In nearly pitch darkness they sat
and drank cocoa, the boiler's brass dial
drooping until Joe, whose warm smile
seemed enough to heat the dank hovel,
rose to feed its obese, sooty gut
another shovel full of coal.
Thankful flames flared, and young Kent stole
a closer look at the black gent's face
as he shared tales of home. Having come
from Nicodemus, Kansas,
a colony formed by slaves
freed after the Civil War, he'd hum
hymns his daddy had taught him
and tell Clark the Rich Man'd get'im
if he wasn't careful. He gave
counsel Clark could scarce remember,
but that face had such character
as to be unforgettable.
Wrinkled, half-shaven, sweaty and worn,
it glistened a rough, reddish brown
in the light that shone through the grill,
and it appeared so solemn
as its lips said, "Kansas is still
bleeding, boy; just a lot slower
nowadays, is all." His epitaph,
that declaration, made pointing
to a copy of Curry's mural
for the capitol in Topeka
depicting a giant John Brown
towering over a torn country.
The work was then in-progress, so Joe
had only a sketch he'd ripped
from a journal and pasted to the coal bin.
Brown was screaming in it. Rage warped
his visage as warriors fell at
his feet; but, to hear Joe tell it,
that painting proves a dead man can win.
This confused Clark. Joe was grateful
for his company anyway.
The feeling was mutual.
Clark shifts focus to peruse
his own image on the pane,
one complacent until his name
reverberates and a ruler
raps his desk. He starts at the crack.
It shatters his reverie
as his peers, Lana too, giggle,
and Mrs. Greene shrieks revile.
"No daydreams in my class!" says she.
"Sorry, ma'am," he says, "I'll listen."
Greene accepts Clark's error
and apology. She has so few pupils
(seven; where eleven once
was thought a low enrollment)
and the town is thinking about
closing down the school. "Tough times,"
some have said, "call for hard men".
There's no argument then
for training those adept with pen,
like Clark Kent; Greene will mourn
the lost talent. She moves on,
the lesson, like the term,
nearing its end. Clark dons
his phony spectacles
and does his composition.
It's easy, but he pretends
he needs the whole period.
He has learned a myriad
of ways to conceal his strengths
and make those his age forget
what an ox he used to be:
Baggy raiment cloaks his muscles
and he slouches, though the others'
having grown means he's a freak
in height no more; and, a streak
of feigned faux pas has altered
their impression of him. He falters
at public occasions. The contest
was the worst. He won it,
of course, but the ribbon got lost
and, with his x-ray eyes,
he saw the essay prize
caught behind Mrs. Greene's desk drawer.
He slipped (a first), opened his mouth
to point out its location,
and she found it and blamed him,
for he'd no doubt hidden it
in base anticipation
of defeat. His chagrin was met
by classmates' grins and the bestowal
of the honor on another.
Lana got it. She laughed then, too,
but showed sympathy.
Fall last, that was. Today, the first
sowing of 1934,
is no different. The children
(grown-ups still label them so;
the adolescent gets no
respect), are let go, and a game
begins in a vacant sand-lot
outside Smallville. It is Clark Kent's
last chance to bear embarrassment.
"Hey, Kent!" Pete Ross hollers, "Look out!",
but Clark has turned his head, entranced
by frail, red-haired Lana Lang's
passing in the distance.
The gangs' chatter hushes;
play halts as Clark is hit
and they watch him fall. "Dang!" curses
Pete. He drops the bat and rushes
to the outfield to kick dirt at
Clark's position. "Don't get distracted,
Clark!" he rasps. "Lana's not so pretty."
Kent, whose task, really, was to not
dent the baseball, differs. He rubs
his unmarked crown and says, "She is."
"I don't get you, Clark," Pete admits.
"You didn't used to be a fool."
Clark drops his borrowed glove and quits.
Thus they finish school by
growing away from old friends.
They were close only a short while
(Kent's manual of style
and Ross's love of sport
divided them quickly),
and it is natural to part,
so, Clark lets himself be cast out.
"Let Pete play leader," he decides.
He will follow Joe's lead
and be content to leave alone.
En route home,
beyond the others' sight,
he goes limp and floats a few feet
above acres of dying wheat,
hanging aloft like a kitten
in an invisible cat's teeth.
Furtive flight permits for a quick
landing should he sense another
nearing, and momentarily
allows him to enjoy his skills.
Today this freedom fills him
with an urge to wander, until
his travel takes him (willfully,
or by happenstance?) to a tree.
At the level of bare branches
he freezes in his flight.
This is where Joe was found,
Chief Parker cut down
the body in a ritual
no-one had performed in some time.
Under rapid bowie strokes
a thick rope frayed. Pendulum-like,
what was Joe swayed and gravity
took its course. Mother Nature's
cold forces pull at apples
and at corpses equally,
so it fell without ceremony.
Just a thud and a quantity
of dried blood in the spring dust.
They cabled Nicodemus,
but Joe had no relations.
There was a burial --
Clark was the sole attendee --
but no investigation.
The Sheriff's explanation
did not satisfy the boy.
"No one cares `bout an old nigger,"
Chief Parker said. "You get bigger,
Clark and you'll know better."
Clark hoped the lesson
was one he wouldn't ever learn.
He hopes so still, but wonders why
he was not there to save his friend,
why that night had to be the first
to find him trapped in a dream that
would deafen any sleeping ears
even to the pleas and screams
of the dying. He wonders.
He always will.
The prairie is still.
No bird chirps, no crickets trill.
Clark Kent, alien in subtle disguise
comes down out of the sky
to ponder what justice is
and the danger to fortitude
of excessive reflection.
He leans against the brittle
trunk of a drought-stricken tree
and discovers dried spittle marks
on the higher bark. He gets chills
in his spine and lifts his eyes.
A haze hangs in the air,
heavier than last year's.
Devilish winds whip it up
and the unforgiving sun
tints it an amber hue.
Days of plenty wane
and Kansas bleeds anew.
Dust seeps out its open veins.