Leather in Heaven
By Grace Yu
This piece challenges the gender stereotypes surrounding masculinity through two father-son relationships. The narrator’s father associates masculinity with anger, but the cowboy father teaches his son that true strength comes from being kind to others.
There’s leather in heaven I think on tiny cowboy boots slicked with mud Rough hands of blackjack oak stroking your boy’s miniature fingers. His sun is helianthus and warm brown hickory tree and your sun is his warmth. He rides Shetland ponies, among blue cornflowers in tallgrass prairie and you saddle your warhorse. Back then, I thought people starved for spring Frozen dirt clinging to cracked nails and gayfeathers kissing purple feet and back then, I followed lost deer pricked by false indigo promises and back then, my father thought he could stitch the wounds cut from his anger with black-eyed susans. I had no one to fix my flower boots. You hammer leather for him with Gentle oak hands, his ankle bones curved with adoration and You sew the cowhide bent into his laughter. His ankles are never frigid like mine. You play cowboys but don’t tell him to kill Indians. The best soldiers hesitate before killing a man and that’s a fact, anyway, he doesn’t need a warhorse yet. He gallops smiling high heels raised and pointed toes with grass stains because his heart is lifting out of his boots and his boots are rising in his stirrups and his stirrups are three and a half feet above ground and swinging lightly in the warm spring breeze, so this is how little boys become ballerinas even after they play with fake guns and shoot wide-eyed deer. Cowboys carried their own handkerchiefs and you told him, Who says they couldn’t cry too? My heels have not forgotten sharp Indian grass and my insole is cleaved to my outsole with loneliness. Your hand-fastened lemonwood pegs, delicately stitched cording trace flowers on his boots. There’s leather in heaven and my father’s black-eyed susans are pressed flat underfoot. Your legacy is in the embroidery you leave on your boy’s boots.
This poem was initially meant to be a sweet, nostalgic poem about childhood and what it means to grow up. Then I wrote the lines “so this is how little boys become ballerinas/even after they play with fake guns/and shoot wide-eyed deer,” and realized there was more to my writing that I wanted to address. I wrote this piece to talk about toxic masculinity and what it means to be a man. The harmful stereotypes perpetuated in our society cause people to associate strength with anger, rather than with love and understanding. In the narrator’s heaven, as well as my vision for a better society, fathers love their sons and teach them that the best man is someone who is kind and cares for others.
Grace Yu is a student at a high school in Manhattan, NY. In her free time, she enjoys reading, playing music and making origami. She has been published in Taking Our Place in History: The Girls Write Now 2020 Anthology, as well as her school’s art and literature magazines. She received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for Personal Essay/Memoir.