In the Field of the Ruined Piano
“It’s me or that piano.” Their covered wagon groans to a halt
in a lush Appalachian meadow beside the buffalo trace
that widens up to the Cumberland Gap. Callous & loud,
no tenderness for what she loves: her rosewood Chickering Grand–
all that’s left since typhoid took her family; she wed in fear
of spinsterhood & hunger, wears regret like a muslin duster.
His gray wolfhound cowers whenever he speaks. “Unload it,”
she says, voice shaky, but brow determined, my foremother
Henrietta Schwab Funk, adding in imperious German,
“Now you may leave. I am staying to await the next wagon.”
Her ochre-tinged cameo, in my red lacquer jewelry box
came with the gift of her story: she played for no one, only
meadow rue & crown vetch, a mournful Nocturne, whose opening
notes fluttered like a mourning dove. All day long, German dances;
that night she sheltered under the piano in her boiled wool cloak.
Sought a stream at dawn’s light, found berries, chewed red clover, played
until her fingers cramped & she grew afraid. Day five, listless, she lay
in the Chickering’s shadow, aching with hunger, almost resigned.
Near dusk, the squeak of wheels. Tomas Guillaume, Acadian
fur trader, in an un-sprung cart, heading for La Louisiane.
Language no use to them, but his voice was kind, his tone amused.
No room for a piano. His gestures said he’d buy her one
some day. They shared bread & jerky, were wed with smiles & glances;
en route to the delta they traded words like pearls: faucon, falke.
A great love she bore him, the story goes, celebrated
especially in the field of the ruined piano; they’d return
in spring after selling the pelts. Soundboard cracked, keys warped,
music stranger each year, an off-kilter cascade echoing
Tom’s bayou fiddle & stomp, Henrietta’s labor cries,
the squeezebox of a girl whose great niece gave me the cameo.