Yonatan ben Yosef, Jonathan, son of Joseph,
was a shochet, a butcher, in the Pale of Settlement.
With a smooth blade, he slit the throats of steers,
drained the blood into a bucket, salted the meat
to make it fully kosher.
He didn’t own the cattle, only slaughtered it.
Shtetl life was brutal, the threat of pogroms constant.
I know only that and the eyes that pierce the photo
on my mantle, so savage my children took it down
and buried it in a cupboard.
Maybe those eyes blackened when his son was conscripted
into the tsar’s army, landing in a Cossack unit.
A scrawny Jew with a caterpillar moustache,
who couldn’t match the sabers or vodka of his fellow soldiers.
Six years later, he slipped out of the army, walked to a train,
a boat to cross the ocean. This must be the wandering gene
that propelled my father to leave the comforts of America
to help rebuild Europe and later flung me afield to Russia
with my own children.
Now in Nebraska, I think of these men buried on both coasts,
far from this center of the country. The prairie stores
its own sad histories: winters that smothered the hopes
of homesteaders, plagues that devoured the crops,
dust storms that darkened the skies.
This morning, after the thunder has crumpled to a whimper
and the rain quiets, the chant of the red-winged blackbird
bounces from green ash to red cedar and the partridge pea
flaunts its yellow. It is impossible to remain gloomy,
even for this granddaughter of immigrants fed on
mistrust and shadows.