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The Frenchman's Line
The following is an imagined account, in haibun form, of an ice-man's day on a New England river around 1900. Ice cut and warehoused on the Kennebec River in Maine was considered to be the purest that could be found anywhere--the world had depended on it for nearly a century to preserve a butcher's meat in New York or cool a viceroy's drink in Asia. Sawdust, of which Maine once had an abundance, was used as insulation in the ice houses, family ice boxes and in the holds of ships.
Her wisp of breath
'neath an iceman's feet
Light the lamp, climb into woolens stiff with cold, a hard biscuit, coffee. Brought in the wood, stoked the Franklin, opened the vent a little more for Rosie.
Long walk to the bay, whiskers freezing. Shops dark, a few lamps aglow in houses.
when horses wait
Men are gathered round a fire, my crew: Jake, Pierre, Richard, Louie, Thomas. To each his tool. O February's teeth are sharp this morning!
Last night's freeze
in the hammer
Horses snort, tack clatters, flanks stove-warm, they sweat. Pierre cuts the first groove, long and straight. "La prem yea", he shouts. Thomas digs the furrow deeper with Achilles, the strongest draught.
Fifty or more join us, scoring a grid of squares and twins to the Frenchman's line across the bay.
"Asheel," he whispers stroking,
"say bo, monammie!"
Then the sawyers come to saw the rock-hard ice, with both hands, strong backs leaning into it, they heave down and up together, and mark time as they have for a hundred years. Chisels crack the sawyer's line ahead of 'em, a full foot thick this year!
the smell of the river
in the long-saw's kerf
By noon the first dozen squares are afloat, and men pole them up the fresh-cut channels.
a gleaming blue
Cant dogs, picks and shoulders heave the blocks up and out of the river while others, with dogs and hooks, heft them up to the raceway's slithering chains.
White this river
but Devilish dark
the waters under
Inside the ice house, it's afternoon, the cakes fall left and right, over a hundred pounds apiece. As many as labor on the ice below work coatless here, some the strapping boys of sawyers, sweat runs down their faces as they leap around the skidding blocks that thunder down the chutes, then they guide and stack 'em up in rows as straight as a mason's plumb.
What royal hands
will clink their glasses
with this ice?
The sun is falling, wind is up, the last square climbing up the race.
Where waters open
before the dark
Shops are closing, a horse's clip-clop here and there, scuff of icemen's boots, lamp-lit parlors. The long walk home again.
Ashes of a day
our line of footprints blue
across Merrymeeting Bay
Kitchen's quiet, Rosie's left me supper 'neath a kerchief. Stoke the stove and set the vent. Turn a brittle page beside the lamp, one Psalm only, then up to bed.
the lamp blown dark
sounds of wind rounding
the ice-ship's mizzen