Pariah by Howard Brown

Pariah

He had a pale and pallid look,
and it wasn’t just
his fair complexion, corn-silk hair,
or the faded jeans
and thread-bare shirts
in which he faced
the world each day.
No, there was a washed-out quality
about his very soul.

Raised on a hard-scrabble farm,
a stone’s throw from the Tallahatchie
(a turgid stream that meandered
along the edge of Two Mile Bottom
like a coiling king-snake
until the government
came along and
made it straight
as an arrow)

he spent an entire summer
entranced by the great, churning drag-lines
as they clawed their way
down the length of the bottom,
metallic jaws scooping up
endless buckets of silt and mud,
dumping them to either side,
so that, in the end, the stream
was nothing more than a sterile ditch.

And in all the years
that followed,
however a conversation started,
whatever its substance,
he always managed to
bring it around
to those idyllic days he spent
watching in wonder
as they dredged the Tallahatchie.

Waiting patiently
for someone to befriend him,
he was a pariah,
a perpetual loner,
a modern day Huck Finn
but without Huck’s wit and guile;
like a dog kicked one too many times,
his first impulse
always to tuck tail and run.

I remember, with no small measure
of guilt and pain,
the day he dropped his head
and wept when our sixth-grade class
laughed as he struggled to describe
the tiny attic room in which he slept,
proof positive of the unwitting and
infinite capacity of children
for abject cruelty:

Though boys throw stones
at frogs in jest,
the frogs
they die in earnest.

by Howard Brown, first appeared as the first place winner in the poetry division of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition.

Editor’s Note: Cruelty is sometimes obvious, but often not. In this poem, it stretches from stream to boy and back again.

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