When We Cast Pebbles Through Clouds

When We Cast Pebbles Through Clouds

We knew how to let our imaginations run free
And we were running, too
On the gravel in front of the house
On the grass around the house, south
To the slough
Then towards the garage to the north
Granaries to the east
And the barn dad built further east
Down the hill to the cattle shelters
And the water well, then back up all the way
West, past the house to another slough
To where the yard meets the gate
That was the start line
For our expeditionary force
And martial games
Like warriors from a medieval Ukrainian poem
“The Exploits of Prince Ihor”
Our energy was “as explosive as that of grey wolves
Racing across a field, fighters intent
On winning a soldier’s honour
And bringing glory to our king”
Meanwhile, the king, our dad
The only real soldier among us
Was at work on the farm machinery
Turning swords into plowshares
As he had been doing for the past 25 years
The only double-edged knives he used now
Were the sections on the swather
To cut the crop for the harvest
We were brothers, brothers-in-arms, and his sons
“One brotherhood under the skies of one bright world”
As in Ihor’s poem
Both the sons of King Vasyl
In our pretend exploits
“With the iron strength of their armies
They took their place in the expedition
On behalf of the king
Through the clouds they cast
Volleys of stones
And held court with authority
All along the length of the Dunai River”
If we had thought to ask him
What he knew about regiments
Like a Roman Legion
Three companies forward
And one in reserve, to exploit
Successes, shore up against mortal threats
He would have told us again, as he had before
“I was with Headquarters Company
4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, the “Plugs”
Canadian Army, Italian Campaign”
The liberation of Ravenna was his big show
Dislodging the enemy by crossing the iron tracks
Of the city’s railway station
Our Operation Iron Rifle was all pretend
With poplar tree branches for guns
And it took a long time before we realized
How real his war was for him
We could have learned a sentiment of parental respect
From Beowulf
Unknown contemporary of Ihor
Countries and centuries apart
“And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him…”
I would learn through study to explain what happened
It is known as peer orientation, attachment crisis
Degrading our relationship with dad
Or from the words of Ihor’s campaign:
“You have squandered your inheritance
On account of your rebelliousness”
What kind of wounds had we suffered
From our culture, a different kind of war
That made us turn against “our father’s golden throne?”
But on that day of our imaginary expedition
There were light, white clouds
In strong blue skies
Redwing blackbirds for our ravens
With sloughs as seas to carry us
Through the fog of war
We were eager to show our bravery
With the classic bravado
“We’d rather perish than be taken captive”
In epic battles, where
“aggression has exacted the oppression
Of human free will”
And again from Ihor:
“Instead of good and fruitful seeds
The fields have been sown with the bones of our native sons”
We remained honourable in the heat of battle
“A blood-red star announced to the world of the day
Oppressive black clouds approached from the sea
Quivering with lightning
To cover the four corners of the earth
They won’t dissipate
Until the thunder releases rain
Like volleys of arrows…
And a clash of battle swords
Brings many closer to their graves…
From the first red light of dawn until the end
Of the day, nonstop from evening ‘til the return
Of light across the earth
Volleys of arrows were released with disciplined accuracy
Sabres thundered against helmets
Swords creating shock waves en masse
Throughout an anonymous field of battle”
We were liberators
Shouting commands in English
And what Ukrainian we knew
Staccato speech, like brief streams of rifle fire
Dad was the one who had a soldier’s tongue
A scout who deciphered Italian, German, and Polish
If we would have stopped to ask him
When the grey, ominous haze developed later
Over our home and fields
He and mom would be the ones to suffer most
“Early in the morning, earlier than imaginable”
The Ukrainian repetition of early morning in Ihor’s poem
Perhaps because the root of the phrase
Is common with the word for wound
A deep wound in their lives and hearts
It was early in my brother’s life, to die at seventeen
Together with his girlfriend, Terry
A car accident in civilian life
The grieving father of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf
Could be my father then:
“He begins to keen
and weep for his boy… he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone…
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.”
To make the overwhelming
More containable
First, dad made the arrangements
For his son’s funeral
Then he returned to his fields
“Maurice started hauling these bales
And I must finish now that he is dead.”
Ihor’s poem adds a feminine lament:
“What powerful wind is this
That is the master of our destiny?
Why do you bear these enemy attacks
Upon your once gentle back
And target my dear husband’s loyal soldiers?
Is it not enough for you
Under the cover of thick mists
To toy with rudderless vessels
Upon the agitated seas?
O master of the winds,
Why have you taken all my joys
And scattered them among the pale, wild weeds?”
The days before the funeral
Mom would leave the house
And wander for hours in the pasture
Past the barn
The nuances of green from the past summer
Long ago turned yellow and white
My one contribution to the release of grief
Was to place his grade Twelve photo on the table
Next to the whiskey bottle that was already there
And go around the room
For each of us to say a word
“I love you, I forgive you
Please forgive me”
It has taken decades since then
To renew, as Ihor’s bard would proclaim
“Their ancestral fame”
A healing within ourselves and in our family
With a promise to myself
And for my own children:
‘We will make men of ourselves
We will capitalize on future successes
While fairly dividing
What has already been won’
Is it no wonder then, brethren
That an old man has been made
To feel young again?”

We knew how to let our imaginations run free
And we were running, too…

September 25, 2017
In memory of +Maurice and +Terry, September 30, 1982

Quotes from Beowulf, Seamus Heaney, translation, “Beowulf” W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2000
Quotes from “The Exploits of Prince Ihor”, commonly known as The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign, translated from Ukrainian by Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk.
Accessed at http://www.poetryclub.com.ua, Ukrainian translation by Maksym Rylsky (1895-1964)

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