NC Literary Hall of Fame



“One-Note Diamond”
An Excerpt from The Long Horn
By Joseph Olschner

The stillness, the whistle,
it is the distance that it ripples,
        a seam of metal onto the fabric
of curtained night
        hemmed by dark morning.

It becomes a melody of history,
        a one pure multitone beacon
of disjointed harmony,
rolling into the Carolina countryside.

clouds rimmed
in bright
ice moonlight,
        the silhouette of pine-top
tree lines,
all of it becoming
        canyons of the echo
as this train horn spills
        over thick, stumped forests
        and one-light crossroads of deep America.

This simple holy horn dives into this rich countryside,
rolls through rows of summer corn,
                over silent fields of pebbled cotton,
with the fabled pale light of a slow-bleed dawn
erupting over small neat gardens
laced with vines
                on webbed string
and bushes
speckled thick with berries.

no one here has a memory of this,
        of trains passing farms lit by wicks,
dirt towns circled
        by fenced animals and
fecund scents,
        smoke lines drifting into rich morning skies,
pencil-lined, delicately trimmed
until reaching
        the same exact height
        where a hidden
current disrupts them,
bending the wisps to disappear
a faint lattice
        lacing the flicker of high stars,
                jewels overlooking dirt.

Who were we then
to witness this,
        the world-rimmed dawn pulling trains
from farmland and wooded swamps,
        or the steel whistle culling the colors of
microscopic light
in time
to be perfect
        with all the rest of imperfection.

Who were we
        to gauge our rise
by the growing light,
        and with the chorus of yard roosters,
        the sound of
boots heels clomping
        room to room,
the quiet knock on wood doors,
we were they
        who lit the stoves
and sipped harsh coffee
        in a warm, bareboard kitchen,
staring out through
        window panes loose for glazing
but getting flowered curtains instead.

When this horn sounds,
        we become a partner to that long past,
a funnel to the history
with all the railroads and rail yards,
the barns labor raised,
        the homes now rotten and caved,
the lynching trees,
        the forests ripped,
        fields rimmed with curbs and clean order,
neighborhoods named after dead generals
        or animals long extinct.

This train’s wail is not a simple sound.
It is a church bell,
        a holy horn
across the stillness
        of a planet,
itself moving into,
                and away from,
        the path of the sun.

This stiff whistle knifes
through the same
        dark morning,
announces the same
        dire caution,
raises our gaze from wooden streams,
bestows to us and to they who
used to be us
the same look to the clock
        or turn of the head.
And it knows
        what it always knew,
                how to breathe into us
        and how to rotate desire
and turn us
        into our own clear window.

And twenty miles the other way,
as the distant,
        one-note diamond sound of a distant
invisible train
and circles over
the neon-lit,
        yellow-lettered Waffle House,
a calloused brown
hand pulls
        a crumpled dollar
from a ragged pocket
and drops
        it beside white breakfast plates,
themselves speckled yellow.

This soldier farmer turned Internet trucker
        will walk into
        a new day’s
        the blue exhaust lacing
                the early morning,
the last bright stars
        lacing pale light,
the trailer rig
        filled with live pigs for bacon,
        his cab filled with Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,
and he will pull this weight into
                a deserted sweet daylight
erupting over
        the headlights of stacked traffic,
grinding the gears for another chance
        to stand at the gate
                or march through Rome,
                        or give witness
to one more Truth
        unknown to purpose.

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