Even Be It Built of Boards Planed by Hand and Joined Without Nails, Yet May a Barn Burn

By H. L. Hix Read the Q & A
The three men now stood satisfied, arms crossed,
joking among themselves, but only moments before
they hadn’t been laughing. It had taken all three
to bind the struggling man. First, to limit his movement,
they had duct-taped his wrists together behind his back:
for that, one man had held his legs and another had pinned him,
one hand on each shoulderblade and one knee on his head,
at his left temple, grinding his right cheek and eye into
the dust and straw and dried shit that formed the floor of the barn.
First they bound his wrists, then his ankles. Then it got easier.
More tape over his mouth, wound all the way around his head,
three full loops, much more than was necessary, which was one thing
they were laughing about, the two bigger men making fun
of the smaller one, who had done that part of the binding.
Then they’d bound him down on the mattress, again with the tape.

The bound man continued to struggle, but once the tape
denied him movement he felt as if he were thinking clearly,
as if his panic had lifted, resistance become
mere obligation. He thought surely the tape would run out,
but they had another roll, just in case. He noticed
the new order—head first this round—when it came to the mattress.
One man would lift one end just off the dirt, enough
for another to wrap the tape, which cursed coming off the roll
in what the man construed as sympathy, all the way
around the mattress in loops that included his head and neck,
then the same process at the other end,
all the way around the mattress and his ankles.

They couldn’t figure how to get the tape around his torso
because it was so near the middle of the mattress.
The bound man found himself wanting to help, but of course
he couldn’t speak, and anyway they didn’t need his advice.
His hands bound behind his back and against the mattress meant
his feet and head, and most of all his neck, were plenty
to keep him from getting loose and grabbing one of their guns.

The bound man’s life didn’t pass before him in summary,
exactly, but he did see things now that in all these years
he hadn’t noticed. The wiring, for instance.
He thought it must have been his own father who’d wired the barn
with that odd blend of pride and makeshift half-competence
that showed up in all his father’d made, himself not least.
One bare bulb bragging from the highest joist
about its white porcelain fixture, but better, really,
at casting long shadows than at lighting the place,
though if the three men would just leave him alone, he thought,
he’d be able to count up all the birds’ nests and speculate
on where swallows had built before there were barns.
The wire ran from switchbox to fixture in straight lines
and right angles, through half-inch galvanized surely intended
for plumbing but good, too, for frustrating the rats.

It was the short man, the one who’d done all the taping, who then
poured kerosene across the mattress and over the man,
soaking his clothes, making sure to splash some into his eyes.
No one else noticed, but he spelled out fuck with the kerosene.
Or anyway swung his arms in that pattern. That was when
they could relax a little, the three men, and start their joking,
once the kerosene was poured. One tall man slapped his forehead:
“You brought matches, right?” “Matches?” the other replied,
furrowing his brow and patting his pockets,
and both laughed out loud. Even the short man smiled.

Barns burn, it turns out, just the way you’d think
if you thought about it, hay fast and hot,
siding lighting the roof and the flooring of the loft,
all the slender strips of wood, with the few parts not tinder—
the frame, the beams and joists—starting last and lasting longest.
But that’s not what the mattress-bound man’s great-great-grandfather
had thought about, its someday burning, as he built the barn.
He had a daughter to worry about, and a wife
big with what he thought might be a boy. And weather,
and a dozen cows. Plenty to fret more immediate
than which fuck-up would later taint his bloodline
and preside over the decay, finally
inviting the sacrifice, of what he had built to last.

Barns burn like bonfires built for the burning,
stacked just so by one mortal for the next.
They burn best at night, whether or not communicants
travel up and down billows lit silver from above,
red from below. And whether or not three men
have stopped among sycamores on the rise just opposite
and turned for a moment to admire their handiwork.

Source: Poetry (April 2010).

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2010
 H. L. Hix

Biography

H.L. Hix teaches at the University of Wyoming. He is also the author of the verse biography, Incident Light (Etruscan Press, 2009). His poem in this issue are now included in First Fire, Then Birds, a new and selected poems published by Etruscan Press (2010).


Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, Life Choices

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem


Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine.

Search Every Issue of Poetry

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.