Abraham's Apprentice

by Stephen Philbrick (Winner) Issue: Spring 2018
This is 40 years ago in the red hills of Georgia.
A young man from the city was there under black walnuts,
in pastures invaded by briars.
Strong back, quick to jump, knew squat all.
He grew up to be me.
I was helping the patriarch, PaPa,
90 and the genius of the place
where he’d grown peaches and, when peaches went out, apples.
Now they raised sheep and beef cattle.
I learned to drive the little gray tractor,
to brush-hog and haul logs.

So it came time to slaughter a wether.
(do you know what a wether is? It’s a castrated sheep.
He was good enough to eat, but not to contribute his seed to Zion,
to the story of the sires of the flock)
He’d already been more than circumcised for someone else’s beliefs. 
He was maybe a year old.
They called him a mutton, just so we’re all clear about everything:
name of the food was the name of the beast was the name of the food.

 I dragged him by the neck with my left hand
    and goosed him ahead with my right across the pasture.
PaPa toted a rope and an axe. 
We reached the cinderblock building,
home to chickens in its day.
Now abandoned, it was dry
with ancient wood shavings,
the remnants of bedding, hanging in the spider webs.
It was dark inside, but it was not cool;
   still, but not easy to breathe.
     Down the long walls were windows every 12 feet or so;
      out the windows it was green and bright and black.

We flipped the sheep and bound his feet together.
   PaPa threw the long end of the rope over a beam.
    There was no groove worn there.
      Had they ever done this before?
I didn’t know exactly what was coming next, but I knew too much.

We laid him on his side with his neck on a block of wood.
Not the stump for splitting stovewood, I noticed,
but a milled piece of a beam, maybe a twelve by twelve.
    That wasn’t there before.
A pin hole in the tin roof sent a shaft
that did not illuminate the chopping block or the sheep,
but once or twice our passing faces.

PaPa said, “You hold him still and when he’s bleedin good, grab the rope and haul.”
I held him down and PaPa hit his neck with the old axe.
It didn’t chop. It hurt.
It bounced off the heavy wool and the wether jerked and fought.
Again, he hit him.
“You try it,” said PaPa, breathing louder than an old man should.
We traded places.
The old man knelt by the sheep and steadied his neck across the altar.
I took the axe, spread my feet right and looked at the sheep.
He looked back. A parallelogram glinted gold in his large dark eye: the pupil. 
He didn’t move.
   Not a twitch or a struggle.
    He didn’t even try. 
I waited for conscience.

  Conscience spoke and the dark scene went red.
    He didn’t even try!
Furious all the way back to any old hurt that I needed
to hurt me forward now,
    I hit until it was enough.

It’s an old story that I have been telling,
now and again, mostly to myself,
to see if it ends any different yet.  

Maybe if I’d been the only person there,
   but I was Abraham’s apprentice
ignorant of plot and
     I had to prove my worth and my bona fides
  ---   my good faith!   ---
I had to deserve.
I was Abraham’s apprentice.
    I had to inherit
       all this blood and all this hunger;
           all this shame and all this anger;
all these flies that rise like the Northern Lights
in a particular Southern glory;
the gospel of my Northern aggression and the Southern Cross;
all the wars that must be lost.

: so much to worry like ligament between the teeth;
  all this and less, the green and glistering cloud of flies;
  the beautiful world we need to consume,
    so we can live in it.

   You see how scripture works?

Stephen Philbrick Credits: D.J. Drumm

Stephen Philbrick is the minister of the West Cummington Congregational Church in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.  He has also been a shepherd, a lumberjack and  cashier of a country store. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, New Letters, and Stone Walls II among others. The Smith and Adastra Press have published poetry collections; with his son, Frank, he wrote The Backyard Lumberjack (Storey Press.) He is married to Constance Talbot, the potter.