Katharyn Howd Machan
(from Sequins: 70 at 70, a series of memoir triptychs)
We went that night in 1971 to steal them, Kathy Brooks and I, to sneak onto the grounds of Reader’s Digest in Mount Kisco (for their office address they used the name of neighboring Pleasantville, where we lived, for the obvious reason that it would make most of the people on their mailing list smile comfortably) and pluck ripe fruit into baskets to take home and share. The summer night was especially dark, and Kathy—a relatively new driver, borrowing her family’s car—kept her eyes carefully on the road. So when a mother raccoon and three babies hum-toddled their way across in front of us, she easily slowed down to make sure they safely reached the grass at the other side. How could we have known that a fourth kit, the smallest of all, had lagged behind? THWUMP! One of the front tires rolled right over the little creature, and sickeningly we experienced the end of a life. Now, this event would have been memorable in itself—but how much more exquisitely sad it was made by the fact that, content in my arms in her little harness, my beloved young Racquel was with us, striped tail resting on my lap and perfect black mask surrounding alert eyes that looked up with curiosity at our horrified gasps? I believe it’s completely probable that never before nor since has a moving vehicle carrying a raccoon struck one. I was heartsick. Kathy and I may or may not have acted on our plan to steal the apples; I just don’t recall.
from The Book of the Raccoon
sometimes raccoons feed on
roadkill, get killed
themselves when headlights blind
one woman makes a habit
of taking the dead animals home,
cooking them, eating them
if they are fresh and clean
disgusting, people say, unnatural
how many dead along the highways,
cars moving fast to hit
eyes gleaming green
After a month or so of dating me steadily in late summer of 1983, Howard Goodfriend let me know he’d not be able to see me for a while because he was going to live with the apple pickers, with whom he had been harvesting at Cornell University’s orchard during weekdays and now would be moving to sites farther away. He’d done this seasonal work before and was able to describe it to me in detail, so I got a good sense of the physical strength required to reach and pluck and place the fruit in the over-the-shoulders wooden trays connected with thick straps. I even composed a poem about him picking apples, which was published with someone’s photo of a basket of them in The Times Monitor. I’d gotten used to his and my rhythm of sharing Friday evenings and Saturday mornings for good meals and sex, so I did feel a bit bereft with him completely gone, on my own again after my workweek teaching writing to students at Ithaca College. I turned again to more reading and writing (and, of course, paper grading) as weeks without him passed. He didn’t call, but I hadn’t expected him to (no cellphones then, of course). No doubt he’d taken up with a fellow picker, I surmised. As autumn grew darker, I found I did not miss him very much. And when in December he did connect to me again—plaintively, almost whiningly, mentioning he’d written a poem for me—I had no inclination to resume our relationship. I was still in touch with fiction writer Jeff Lipkis in Chicago, knowing I would stay with him again when I returned to meet with my dissertation committee at Northwestern. Oh, and I’d become powerfully infatuated with a man 13 years younger than me, Oliver Jai’Sen Mayer, a poet who did not pick apples but smiled and sang with magic.
Now you tell me of picking apples,
how you work with the tree
the way it needs to be worked,
not pushing, forcing, breaking, but
moving among the branches for fruit
in rhythm with leaves and curve of bark,
filling more baskets than anyone else,
no bruises, scratches, burn.
Now you kiss me with all your mouth,
arms, chest, pulling me close, your hands
learning the arch of my back,
giving more than mind can offer or ask,
reaching a bend and flow that words
can’t touch, that will can’t grasp,
that only knowing like apple knowing
can bring to its full harvest.
For my 70th birthday in September of 2022 my longtime spouse Eric and I again traveled to our beloved Skyros in Greece. I refused to allow arthritic pain in my hands (its cause debated by doctors) to make me cancel the trip. It was my tenth visit and Eric’s fourth. I had experienced the island in the months of May, June, July, and August, and now, because of my sabbatical leave from Ithaca College I could learn what it’s like in September. We settled into our bamboo hut and began to enjoy the rhythm of Atsitsa—the Skyros Institute’s western site—very happy that chef Taki was still the creator of three excellent communal meals each day. Part of the pattern at Atsitsa is that participants are asked to sign up for volunteer work for about half an hour after breakfast and the demos meeting (announcements, requests, appreciations, a brief lesson about the Greek language) and before the oekos sessions (small-group confidential sharing in which each person gets to speak for a few minutes without interruption, the others listening caringly and calmly). Some people clear and clean the tables, others sweep (Eric’s job of choice), a good number chop vegetables for lunch and supper. For several of my visits now I have contributed the service of deadheading the numerous geraniums on the property and plucking off their dried leaves, filling a bag each day and thus lessening the work of the groundskeeper. I especially like to focus on Apricot Circle because it is so very quiet and peaceful. This year I was rewarded by finding two remaining figs still hanging on their branch; I plucked and ate one—true ambrosia!—and brought the other to another Virgo participant a week away from celebrating her 80th birthday. Dozens of ripe little apricots awaited me as well, and each morning, after I delighted in a few for their sweetness like golden sunshine, I gathered enough to bring to my oekos group that met in the taverna on the beach. And in the far curve of the Circle I discovered a low tree rich with small green apples. At first I thought they had not matured, but I decided to try one and I am so grateful I did: not only was the fruit perfectly ripe and pleasurably chewable, but it tasted like honey on my tongue, the essence of lingering summer. Artists usually depict Eden’s apples as red, but I think maybe it was the greatgreatgreatgreatgrandmother of that Skyrian tree that brought to Eve her good knowledge.
I have fallen from my tree
here on Skyros
to old earth where your feet
took you as you have
up into your hand,
poet with so many questions.
Others might have
ignored my small beauty,
but in your palm
I am beyond sour.
Skyros, unpredictable Skyros:
to taste is not to need
a sweet and public name.
Katharyn Howd Machan has been writing and publishing poetry for half a century. She lives and teaches in Ithaca, New York, with her beloved spouse and fellow poet Eric Machan Howd. She directed the Feminist Women’s Writing Workshops, Inc., and served as Tompkins County’s first poet laureate. She belly dances.