Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011. Her memoir, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, is forthcoming with The Ohio State University Press, and she is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press 2017), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press 2014). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, The Normal School, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, Zone 3 and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. You can find her on Twitter @SF_Montgomery.
“When early travelers on the plains came through a big herd of buffalo, they could watch the human scent move through it on the wind, frightening animals eight and ten miles away”
—Ian Frazier, Great Plains
It began with a head rising on the Plains,
curled crown and smooth snout
jerking from the ground with a start.
From the ridge above it must have seemed slight—
a flicker in the motionless landscape tapestried below.
But the beast weighed a half ton, and so burdened
even the brush with its heft, the ground rumbling
beneath shifting feet. And when one buffalo retreated,
the others lifted their noses to the air, eyes widening.
As though an invisible hand tugged a thread,
the scene unraveled—alarm sweeping like water, blood,
creatures trampling each other to abandon this place.
What of humanity did they smell on the wind?
Gunpowder, cornmeal, strong coffee.
The heavy scents of tobacco and importance.
Human sweat through furs and tanned hides,
or the fear of the animals themselves,
lingering like ghosts in the skins.
“The prairie is also a place in which souls regularly wither. The countryside was once dotted with insane asylums, and everybody had an aunt or nephew who had gone to live in one.”
—Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year
No one knew why Mary Green went to bed
one afternoon—left the clothes in a wrinkled heap,
the iron still plugged in the wall, red and hissing
like the shining kettle on the stove for tea,
or the biscuits left to bake until black and smoking—
she simply drew down the shades and up the coverlet.
At first folks thought it was the flu,
and after a week maybe woman’s trouble,
but the doctor pronounced it prairie madness—
the kind old settlers got when all that waving grass
looked like churning sea and they fell dizzy
to the ground, or an oasis appeared in the dust,
a promise of lush, of fertile, of moist,
and they wandered off to die like crops in the heat.
As far as Mary could see, a deafening
isolation of fields stretched out before her
when she stood at the window each evening waiting
for her husband to finish plowing the farm
that drove so many of his ancestors mad.
She often felt like the old milking cow,
her haunches sharp with regret,
udders crusted with wear,
chewing her cud day after day.
Corn and sorghum aren’t much for company,
and though washing dishes turns May to June,
knitting September to October,
when January brings twelve inches of snow,
the wind lifting it up into the air in sheets,
soon even the fields are invisible,
all that was living suffocating beneath the weight.
Going to bed seemed like the right answer.
For years Mary refused to rise,
taking meals from neighbors and friends
who ventured across the miles to see her,
acquiring quite the collection of nightgowns
from her worried children, who’d all left
for more exciting places long ago—
Boston, Nashville, San Francisco.
But when her husband died—
a heart attack while out walking beans—
she threw back the covers and shades,
tied her hair up in a grey ponytail.
She sold the farm and moved to Boca,
where eating corn with every meal was optional
and she could talk to neighbors over a picket fence.
Where—most days—she was sure the waves were real.
Glaring white against the brown
of Big Bluestem grass, the big blue sky,
the purple coned leadplant dotting the plains:
one hundred million skeletons are all that remain
of the slaughtered bison left to rot
from Texas clear up to Canada,
the smooth curve of their ribs,
the jagged nostrils from which they drew air
now stark against the sun. It hurts,
confronting the contrast, and homesteaders
squint at the bleached cemetery they’ve come to plow.
The children wheel out the barrow
and take turns harvesting the dead,
pulling first a shoulder and then a rib
up from the ground like carrots or potatoes.
Throwing clods of dirt, they whip one another
with the sharp strands of prairie grass the plow
has only just begun to grind down.
They find skulls, hold them up
to their innocent faces, peering through
the eyeholes: a vast new territory
framed by bones.