I had a lamb and named him Cuthbert.
Cuthbert was what I named my little lamb.
I fed him oats and I fed him corn.
I fed him on the clover flush with spring.
I pet and patted Cuthbert every day,
fed him on the brightest summer hay.
Cuthbert, little Cuthbert, how he grew.
I knew then what Cuthbert didn’t know.
I trained Cuthbert daily for the fair,
led him with a gleaming halter in a ring.
Spring drew on, and dully led to summer.
My little lamb was now a market wether.
We took him in a trailer to the show.
He bedded down in bright sawdust in his stall.
I blackened Cuthbert’s pretty cloven hooves.
I carded Cuthbert’s haunches with a comb.
I oiled his black muzzle until it shone
and the day came to take him to the ring.
The livestock judge opened Cuthbert’s mouth,
examined Cuthbert’s single row of teeth.
He patted hands on Cuthbert’s meaty loin,
moved us into a single showman’s line.
The judge returned, walked off, came back again,
pulled us from the lineup and then said
this market wether was the finest in his class.
That night I put Cuthbert on the block.
The auctioneer sang the money from the crowd.
Cuthbert stood tensely and I was proud.
A banker bid the highest for the lamb.
I led him through the sawdust to his pen,
fed him a laudatory meal in his pan.
By morning the stalls stood empty in a row
and we children were invited to the show
of the carcasses of market lambs and hogs,
of Hereford steers trained docile as a dog.
The bodies stripped of hides hung on their hooks.
We filed past them casting furtive looks,
the carcasses’ bright surfaces white with fat,
the room chilled cold enough so that
the meat we grew stayed incorruptible and fresh.
We exited the abattoir’s cold light
and in the concrete hallway was the sight
of heads struck dumb and staring by the door
under plastic sheeting on the floor
to be taken to the mink farm we were told
for every precious portion had been sold.
His head looked out at nothing he could see.
Cuthbert, little Cuthbert, you have nothing left for me.
This year I did not love the first snow,
took no joy from the clean whiteness
masking the contours of my yard,
the last leaves stripped from the weeping beech
to reveal its looping undercarriage,
the ground hardened underfoot
as the world froze in late November.
I have secretly admired the first hard frost
killing the garden, putting an end
to its many failures, the beetles and rusts
finally put to death, and which are hard
not to see as moral judgments
on my insufficient diligence.
This year I put on the woolens,
banked the stove with oak and elm,
watched the snow feather down
on the spruce, the grass still green under white,
and I felt an uncommon dread
for the inward turn that usually marks these days
that end in early nights at home
with their firelit contemplations,
the darkened privacy of the lamp
encircling the pages of an open book.
I wanted more—not of summer,
with its swampy air and the nighttime
amphibian whir, but of autumn
with its metallic skies swept with clouds,
of the promise of something about to end,
but not yet taken away.
Above the Catskills, the peaks are veiled
in a cloud of snow. This is where
I think my dead have gone—
my father and Lucie and John—the dead
being impervious to cold,
having left their bodies with us to cherish,
but also to bury and to burn.
I imagine them as they wander the high peaks,
rippling like figures underwater,
like figures one dreams and forgets,
a shape drawn and erased
so only the pencil’s impress remains.
Now that they are frozen
I know they are truly dead.
Let me let them go
I pray to the God of Nothingness
who rules those icy, bluestone peaks,
who hides the world of the living
underneath his coat of snow.
He has taken them from me
and now I will them, coldly, to go.
Mark Wunderlich reads “Cuthbert”
Mark Wunderlich reads “First, Chill”
Mark Wunderlich is the author of four books of poems, the most recent of which is God of Nothingness, forthcoming from Graywolf Press. He directs the Bennington Writing Seminars, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.