He swiped the straight razor down a brown leather strop, then scraped the blade up his throat, his face becoming an upturned moon, a stone smoothed years in a river. I wanted to be brave like that— summer nights mud crusted and flaked like dry leaves off my knees as I sat cross-legged beneath the pine rows, waiting for manhood to come bursting from the stars and bless me with a beard and barreled voice. My grandfather’s shaving always brought blood dribbling down his cheek in thin red ribbons, and sometimes the bright pinch of toilet paper remained wet, stayed fused to his face whole days while he kept watch over migrant workers, and severed grapes off the vine with knives that glowed blue from decades of gun oil and sharpenings. So many knives, he kept three in his glove box and picked grit from his fingernails with another. A cigar box brimful of Barlows. So many knifes, the Bayonet and the Bowie hung on hooks, locked like secrets in the shed after my uncle, in his twelfth year, got brave with both of them, crossed the blades over his head before slicing the air, the twine that held a bouquet of shovels together, and when they clattered over him, the boy rose with blood blossoming around the crescent tip inched inside his calf, not hurting until he saw the Bowie snagged and dangling down to his ankle. That afternoon, my grandmother iced and washed the wound, wove a sewing needle clean and quick through her son’s skin, quieting pain as she repeated hush, hush. * Forty years, and wasps battered inside the same plastic light-globe swinging on its chain in the cursive wind whistling through windows, the ceiling yellowed and pregnant with rainwater. Knives topped the ice box, and twin razors freckled with dry lather lay crossing the soap dish. Mice made their home crawling through holes in the attic walls, panicked claws clicking behind peeled gray paper. No one climbed those steps in decades, my grandfather’s slow ascent sending a thick snow of dust and plaster drifting down, peppering the kitchen table, the foil squeezed around the turn-dial’s bent rabbit ears. Hands and knees, a flashlight pinched between teeth, flies began to investigate his face. Pellets shaped small constellations fixed to the molded, leafy carpet. It was fast, the babies wrinkled and pink, fetal-curled. Walking the bare vineyard, he flung each mouse body by body from a burlap sack, leaving meals for milk snakes, stray cats. The poison he’d scattered stained his fingers with the smell of slack skeletons, stiffened fur, so he clenched, with both white-knuckled fists, a bolo machete’s dull blade, as if the steel offered something other than waiting always for autumn’s release, money for the grapes he’d see swell and crawl down trellises. In my grandfather’s dreams, knives bristled the air like war arrows, though he never got cut. The year I was born, his eyelids sagged black, his legs, with each strained step, turning more into cracked glass, so fearing he’d never make it past the first days of my life, he handed my father a Swiss Army knife to give me. When the time is right, he said. But he lived to see me take hair off my own face. He lived, though his lungs hissed like steam. * When I asked about the blood vessels webbing like lace doilies in deep purple streaks scraggled over his nose, his cheeks, he said the words skin cancer. And he was calm. I wanted to say a short prayer, but couldn’t. As a child, I asked what heaven looked like—a haunted attic, he said, and I thought his white hair meant it was always snowing inside his mind. I still believed that, driving him to the doctor he had refused to visit, while he yelled how much he wanted to punch my lips in. Then walking him by arm, almost pulling, past the hot lights, past wheelchairs braked at check-in, each room with two patients sitting up in their beds, staring forward like children in school desks; it was a slow collage leading back to his life, and the nights after, when I leaned to swab the holes in him, taped fresh gauze, the long months of silence, his leathery face looking more like he held greasy coins under his tongue. Forgive me, it was only wet breathing veiled by paper masks—only one more knife scraped across his skin. I meant it as an act of kindness.

JOHN STANFORD OWEN’s poems have appeared in DMQ Review, the Southeast Review, Third Coast, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and the Yalobusha Review. He is finishing his MFA at Southern Illinois University, where he teaches composition and creative writing and directs the Saluki Writers' Project, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to the community based teaching of creative writing outside of the traditional university setting. He lives with his wife and dog in Carbondale, IL.