a b b y    h a g l e r

The Law of the Quadrillei



If I were to grow into a mountain range, then I would no longer be from Nebraska. The law asks me to forget my beginning, to misplace its memory. I am not from Omaha. This is population 679 and shrinking. Quaternary tributary of the Missouri River. A mountain is not a hill; there is a difference between stillness and movement.

This is not how I remember the beginning. It is an ever-present drought. It is the color of cattle collapsing in mid-afternoon; it is grasshoppers devouring what has collapsed—bottlebrush, wild rye, and scimitars of cheat grass covering the pasture’s roots. Of taller siblings, musk thistle is an aster not a grain. And it is invasive. It is the only green I see.

I need a legend to explain the origin of this thought. I need to remember why I would start a fire. If the matches are in the cookie jar, then I am following the law. Citizens are forbidden to neglect to kill an invasive species. If the matches are in the hammer drawer with the pliers and the pistol, then my fire is for the sake of myself. Burning is still symbolic beneath the roof of the stucco-and-stained-glass church my family attends. But there is no law that says invasive species must be burned.

“Blazes,” the old church ladies say. And “heavens.” Ashes. Piled outside my house, close to the grey garage. Little flakes of black plastic caught in Carhartt coats and heavy leather boots. Black ash of splinters under my palm flesh. Scorch mark the snow will absorb like milk does hunger. A controlled fire. The conifers are not singed. The garden remains maimed only by grasshoppers. The yard, chamomile colored from thirst.


Just like the Tree of Life, there exists a wound somewhere and it is closed. The body looks perfect as a field of neat tending. Though the hills are said to be “rolling.” They welter as if akin to the ocean, a more languid cousin of waves. From a distance, I see only fixed squares made by fences, rows of grains without brown or yellow imperfection, cattle or tumble brush.

I neglected to feed the cattle after school. A strap.

Like fire, the purpose of punishment is to give the wrongdoer time for meditation. By law, men used to be drawn and quartered by horses running in four different directions, or on wooden beds with wheels that turned and stretched the limbs. A body may come apart. The law wants to see this—for the wrongdoer to be broken, lesser, changed. Though to become lesser is not the only way to change. Meditating, when one is truly wrong, the mind will constellate with different excuses, the girl, like fire, tearing herself apart.

There are several degrees of burns, third being the worst. There are several ways to get burned. By flame, aphorisms about taking the heat or leaving the kitchen. Perhaps not the same as “shit or get off the pot.” Steam blown off. A tureen quaking on the stove. Burned not because I have a tendency to stand too near, but because I must keep learning how to move away.

My father’s recipe for chili is easy: one pound of hamburger, 15 ounces of tomato sauce, ketchup, mustard, brown sugar. Chili beans—the plain ones not the hot ones—and their juice. No need to add water.

There are several types of thistle in Nebraska: bull, plumeless, Canada, musk, milk, and Platte. Milk thistle is actually a daisy, musk thistle a sunflower. All are in the aster family, though no one around here thinks of thistle as beautiful. Some have hairy foliage, some deep green sun-side leaves that are silver when turned over. This is how to tell a thistle from a nettle—a nettle being all green. This is how to know whether to pick more leaves—which should be carefully folded over twice and chewed to make a poultice to serve as antidote to a sting. A thistle does not hurt the way a nettle does. Thistles originated in Europe. There is not a town in Nebraska called Thistle, though there is a Roach, Surprise, Colon, and Worms. Thistle is in Utah.

My family history does not go very far back, though we are clearly of European origins. We remember perhaps no further back than my great-grandparents. We remember nothing but Nebraska. I do not know where my surname comes from, only that it is more common in the South. My father, and my brother now, has sunburned arms, face, and neck.

For smoking, I smoke an entire pack of Marlboro reds. In the space of a couple hours on Sunday, a scratchy plastic lawn chair. Sucking down each cigarette, quietly while the family sits in the lawn and watches.

Today I dig around what wounds I created, ones that closed up, two or three musk thistle covering the single plant I had chopped and, presumably, killed. To really kill a thistle, it is important to dig out the root, which can be deep but is not as complex as grass. The thistle body may expire with amount of damage but it is important not to leave it lie once it is pulled. It is important to bag each plant, to be careful not to damage its head.

I never thought of Prometheus. Before taking the matches, I try to remember if a betrayal must come before confession, or if confession is the betrayal. This is the day OJ Simpson gets chased. This is post-Bosnia. I was told I must dig up the musk thistle proliferating in our pasture. This is how I know it is June. Next month the thistle will be taller than me. Then my body will be nothing. I cannot remember what I have done to deserve this except that I had woken up my father too late at night.

My father likes to try and predict the outcome of movies. He’s very good at pattern recognition, pattern making. The love of patterns is a mark of his intelligence. The love of patterns is a downfall. My father grew up to be a farmer, though that is not what he wanted to be: popcorn, wheat, sunflowers, soy beans, corn for cattle feed and ethanol.

My brother shot a hole in his carpet with his first rifle though he had shot one many times before. We put down linoleum flooring to cover the rupture.

I am good at cleaning up after a mess. I am good at going to my room. I am good at collecting myself in the space of a couple of minutes. I like that phrase—to collect one’s self. We are too busy to be alone after. My father takes us back to the field to work, or in to town to get a soda before going back to work. I am trying to grow up to be one who does not collect anything. I collect myself. I wipe my face and pull a pink shirt over bruises that don’t yet exist, that will go unexplained to friends at the pool, that will be forgotten before they have shown themselves.


I scream face-first into different colors of carpets—mostly brown—while the leather strap is on my spine. I scream until my screams deepen and I feel like kelp, just streams waving. My brother says my scream sounds like a woman’s, that he gets scared when we play games that always end in slapping contests, spitting contests, yelping as we push the pressure points inside one another’s armpits.

The most dangerous part of the musk thistle is its lovely purple head. Growing out of a spiny boule, each individual silk a waving hair atop a white skull. Triangular. Lovely jagged. The seeds are inside that head and, when it falls, it hardens, splits and its seeds, they scatter.

I dig thistle until I have no more garbage bags. Eight in the back of the truck. All thistle are invasive. I do not think of Prometheus while I look for the matches between the seats. In agony over the number of eagles attacking the collapsed this summer, I still cannot say why I am starting this fire. The gods force some beings to become part of the earth when they ask for help. Because of the eagles, Prometheus had to press his body into the rock he was chained to. Perhaps his wounds made his body more permeable. He pressed so hard he became one with Bosnia. I mistake Indian grass and the prairie brome for wild wheat, shuck the little seeds off, thinking their seeds make gum. Unlike wheat, brome is bitter and falls to pieces between my teeth. I will never think:

I am bitter.

Milk thistle is good for the liver. It stops the liver from poisoning itself when it wants to die. The gods gave Prometheus a renewable liver. Though the eagle shredded it again and again. Musk thistle is good for the liver too. But musk thistle must to die. I grab a shovel and a large roll of garbage bags. Musk thistle proliferates quickly and kills the pasture.

Sometimes my father does nothing. Sometimes he just asks me what is going on in my head. Sometimes he says that my brother and I are “Dumber than a pile of rocks.” Perhaps this is why I shop for groceries and wash dishes like someone is watching me. I wander the dark house for two or three hours before bed. I am not alone with my hands out, needing as much information as possible. I try to read. I need to become more a part of the world, less a part of this particular place. Yet, this is what made me the way I am: so still in my sleep my green covers resemble moss.


After confession, there comes a manifestation. My palms are pricked and bleeding. Red mars the shape of my body. In all my years, this color will never look good on me. The shape of my body is marred by this place. I crack open the needling thistle stalk, lick the milk from its green sinews. It is bitter because my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I am a girl. The shape of my body is nothing.

Though my father has thrown at his children a wrench, a heavy book, a box of mac and cheese, he is not an un-measured man. He does what he does because it is what his father did to him, and his father him. My father plans our punishments around pulling a stuck calf and digging out pivots trapped in their own tracks. Sometimes he is not mad. Sometimes he locks himself in the pickup after fixing a quit pivot. He sits inside chuckling, letting the well water that costs a fortune to pump rain down on us sitting motionless in the truck bed. My father likes to travel and scuba dive. He has a large collection of Zane Grey novels about the old west, is a John Wayne fan.

In a poem, I write that a woman opened my mouth and crawled inside. It should be that a woman came out of me, but there is no room for a woman in a little girl. In the girl, the woman must make room for herself.


iTaken from The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka: “The law of the quadrille is clear, all dancers know it, it is valid for all times.”



ABBY HAGLER is a second-year graduate student in poetry at Columbia College Chicago. She is an assistant editor of Court Green, a writing instructor, and her critical work has previously appeared in Boog City.

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