Table of Contents

They Danced Even in the Dust, Grace Anne Carey
The Wounded, Bob Gidcumb
the museum, C.L. Carol
how to become like a baloon (among other things), Shiloh Sanchez
Hakuna Majibu Kwa Waliojeruhiwa No Answers for the Wounded, Bob Gidcumb
A Flame, A Light, Thomas Mann
Felt., Mark Cauley
Swimming Free, Herb Bursch
Torn-Paper Clouds, Joel Zuehlke
Doves, Rachel Stock
The Good Wife, Anne Trelfa
A Step Up From Down There, Richard Glass
a toast to the roofs of my village, Jennifer Onufry
The Cradle, Erik Potere
Sedimentality, Anne Trelfa
hell mill, Amy Conger
The Commute, W.C. Smith
The Wild, Erik Potere
Judith, Benjamin Smith
Covering My Tracks, Rachel Stock
Until You Marry It, Benjamin Smith
Torn, Shiloh Sanchez
Negaunee, W.C. Smith


They Danced Even in the Dust

Last night lying in bed leafing through old type-written stained pages,  I found the vodu. Sure, you had told me about them before, but I realized then how often they had actually been around, how many times we had been visited by them.

 

Half-dreaming, I went back a few days. We were in the dancing room possessed by a salsa fervor. You, me, and Tony. We had danced for hours forgetting the stickiness of sweat and the inhalations of hard-working hearts as feet glided across the wood floors and arms pressed into one another. In exhaustion our bodies wanted rest, but our hearts yearned to keep dancing, so you put in the DVD of my sisters dancing.

 

I think of it now, the way we were at that moment, the way the vodu were keeping company. Transfixed by the mundane, the spectacular happened before and within us. Dede and Koko danced their small bodies mimicking the older girls, learning the ways of life. We packed boxes and sorted bric-a-brac while the people on the other side, behind the TV glass, repeated conversations told long ago.

 

Your voice drifted into the other living room, the one on the screen, from behind your camera, but as I turned to look at you I saw that we were all behind the camera. You had been right here the entire time. You, the voice behind the camera, became three-dimensional. I, the voyeur, watched the entire process, the filmmaker, her camera, the lens, the veil, those being watched and watching back. You who were never seen were now suddenly exposed and made real. These were no longer two disparate living rooms separated by continents and seas, but one room where the bunch of us convened and shared souls. I wondered absently if your exposure made me visible too.

 

As you repeated conversations told long ago, nodding your head when appropriate, looking into the eyes of those speaking, I felt aware that I was a stranger among friends. I wondered what Tony was, how he felt, if he was experiencing this as I was. From his armchair in the corner, he sat quietly thinking or just letting his bones settle. I was here, you were here, Tony was here, West Africa was here, little Dede and little Koko were here, and the vodu…were they here as well? I think they were, in fact I know they had to have been. The dancing must’ve called them. They must’ve been calling the dancing into our hearts.

 

That DVD was more than just a disc, it was the perpetuation of a particular moment in time, left open for us to come and go as we pleased or as we were possessed to do.

 

Reading your old college essays, you’re still teaching me even now that you have left. You told me last night through your inky voice that vodus are never from the village where they come to dance, they are always Other. It occurred to me that the Other isn’t always the unknown, the Other can be the intimate, but those little girls dancing, little Koko and little Dede, we brought them back through that film. This, the house that would someday be their home, the house that will soon no longer be their home – this house was a village en liminal and they, my sisters, had not become not-Other and were re-becoming Other. We gave them our bodies to dance.

 

The music, the dancing, the drumming—it was all in our living rooms as you carried on conversations perpetually repeated. And suddenly, you looked at me. In that second, when your eyes directed that conversation to me, the unfamiliar face, I became what I had not been ‘till then, a friend among friends. I became part of that moment, that memory; I became aware of the vodu.

 

We wanted to resist turning off the TV. The desire to let it play over and over and keep West Africa in our living room was consuming.

 

In my borrowed home, the vodu are filtering in; they come through West Africa, through you, your film, your writing, and the traces you’ve left behind. I found myself mindlessly thumbing the beads of the necklace you bestowed upon me in the living room, feeling each groove and curve pass between my fingers. I was exposed when you handed it to me, I was among friends but felt stranger, felt Other. You exposed me and I found comfort in the legacy of exposures this fetish bore, in the Othering that it produced; it felt sacred, I felt sacred.

 

I mulled for days trying to figure out why you had given me the necklace of mothers, such a precious thing, but perhaps it was because I was no longer just a stranger, I was also friend, and ritual-Other and maybe you knew, maybe the vodu knew, it was just the possession I needed.

 


 

The Wounded

The one-room cabin was old and musty. Ty was lying on the canvas cot, wide awake.  His father and Uncle Jack were sitting at the table, quietly playing a game of cards. Jim they called it.  The object of the game was to get the Jim card. Once you did that, you could lay all your cards on the table and take a drink out of the little glass.

Ty was sure he could play the game, but his father had made him go to bed.

“We’ll be leaving at the crack of dawn,” he had said. “You’ll need your rest for tomorrow.”

If that was true then why were they still up? Well, he thought, they can’t make me sleep until I want to. So, I’ll just stay awake and watch them play.

 

***

 

“It’s time to get up, Ty. C’mon, rise and shine, son.”

“I wasn’t sleeping,” Ty said rubbing his eyes.

“I know,” his father said. “I just wanted to let you know it’s time to get dressed.”

“Okay.” Ty sat up and swung his short legs over the edge of the cot. He had to scoot on his behind until his feet could touch the floor. The crack of dawn looks a lot like night time, he thought. His father opened the cabin door and stepped outside. Uncle Jack was sitting on a stump stuffing long shells into his rifle in the light from a soon-to-rise sun.

“Where are you going?” Jack asked.

“To the outhouse.”

“Seems like a long walk just for that. I’d just drain it in the weeds over there,” Jack said, pointing with the bullet in his hand.

“If we were all going to urinate in the weeds, why did we bother to build an outhouse?”

Jack shrugged. Ty noticed that Uncle Jack looked a lot like Mom when she shrugged at Dad’s questions that weren’t questions. Ty intentionally shrugged his shoulders a couple of times and couldn’t decide if he looked like that, too. Unintentionally, he shrugged once more and the question was gone like those lightning bugs he was trying to catch the night before.

“Did you wake Ty up yet?” Jack yelled to the big man just as he was opening the door to the outhouse.

“Yes.  He’s up and dressing.” The outhouse door swung closed behind him. Once the door was closed Uncle Jack stood up from his stump and walked into the cabin. Ty had taken his pajama bottoms off and had one leg in his pants. He was lying back on the cot, asleep again as Uncle Jack approached him. An impish grin formed on Uncle Jack’s face. He walked over to the boy, raised his foot to the child’s shoulder and shook him.

“What are you doin’ sleepin’,” he yelled.

Ty woke up startled.   “I…I wasn’t sleeping.”

“You were so, boy!  You were sleepin’,” Uncle Jack scolded.

Ty began to whimper. “Don’t start cryin’ boy or we’ll never bring you along again! Now get your ass up and get dressed before we leave you here all day, alone with the rats!”

Ty jumped off the bed and finished putting his pants on as Uncle Jack left the cabin. He buttoned his shirt, not taking the time to make sure the buttons were in the right buttonholes, like his father had taught him. He wondered where his father was. He wanted to call out for him, but didn’t. He put on his stiff leather hiking boots and rushed outside.

Now he could see his father walking back toward the cabin from the outhouse. His father looked like the biggest man in the world. Uncle Jack would have to wear an Abraham Lincoln hat to be as tall as Ty’s father. Ty was glad that Uncle Jack wasn’t that big. If he were, Ty would really be in trouble.

“You all set to go, son?” he heard his father’s voice ask from the overgrown pathway.

“Yes, sir.” He ran down to meet his father halfway and rode back to the cabin on the big man’s shoulder. They could see Uncle Jack sitting in the passenger seat of the Jeep as they approached.

“Are we all packed up and ready to go?” Ty’s father asked.

“Just waitin’ on you two.”

Ty’s father lifted the boy off his shoulder and into the Jeep. Then he maneuvered his own big frame in behind the steering wheel. Ty found his favorite position standing between the two cloth bucket seats, holding on with one hand on the top of each seat. His father started the engine and pulled out.

“We’re off,” he said.

“It’s about time,” Uncle Jack said. “I was gettin’ damn restless. I’m ready to blast the biggest damn buck that anybody’s ever seen around here!”

“Maybe you’ll get Big B,” Ty said.

“That’s only a legend, kid.  Like Santa Claus,” Uncle Jack snorted.

Ty’s father sent Uncle Jack “the look.” Uncle Jack pretended not to notice, but he did.  “I’m gonna get me a damn big one, though. You can bet your ass on that! I’m gonna get the biggest son of a bitch in these woods!”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” Ty’s father said.

“Like what?”

“That language in front of Ty.”

“What language, Dad?”

“You just never mind.”

The trio rode silently for a while down the rutted, half-frozen dirt road, heading for their favorite hunting spot. To Ty it felt like they had been riding for hours. He didn’t mind it though and he knew better than to complain. He knew how close he had come to not going hunting with his father. His mother and Uncle Jack had both said no. Still, his father let him come along. He was glad that Uncle Jack was with them. He liked riding between the seats better than riding in the seat.

After a while, the Jeep pulled over to the side of the road.

“Come on Ty,” his father said as he opened the half door of the Jeep.  “From here on in we walk.” On the other side Uncle Jack climbed out. Ty stepped onto his father’s seat and his father lifted him down to the ground.

“Try not to step in ALL the mud, son.”

“O.K. Dad.” Ty looked for snakes in the ditch while his father and Uncle Jack unloaded the gear from the Jeep. Ty’s father and uncle both put on big, brown vests with bulgy pockets. The vests had little belts sewn down in little loops which the two men filled with bullets. Ty’s father called him over to the Jeep and sprayed him down with mosquito dope even though it was too cold for mosquitoes. Ty sneezed three times.

“You sneeze three times in a row and it means your brains are dusty,” Uncle Jack said.

Ty’s father shook his head and went over to the other side of the Jeep and sprayed Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack then sprayed Ty’s father. Neither of them sneezed.

Uncle Jack picked up his rifle off of the hood of the Jeep, slung it over his shoulder and started off into the woods. Ty’s father picked up the Garand that had belonged to his own father and the Rimfire he brought for Ty. The two of them followed Uncle Jack silently into the woods.

“When will I get to carry my own gun, Dad?”

“When you’re old enough to know and obey the rules of hunting,” his father replied.

“How old is that?”

“I don’t know.  Eight or nine, maybe.”

They walked along. It was quiet in the woods except for the light crackling of their footsteps on the brittle leaves and up ahead, the lesser sound of Jack’s hushed movements. Ty’s father could have easily caught up with Jack but he was being very careful to hold branches and trample brush that was too tall for Ty.

Behind his father, Ty wondered why they were walking so slowly. Why weren’t they trying to keep up with Uncle Jack? Ty thought he could easily catch up by maneuvering under the bushes, but he didn’t want his father to get lost alone in the woods.

“How long ‘til I’m eight or nine, Dad?” Ty asked while darting around the bush that had deposited a dozen burrs on his father’s pant leg.

“A few years yet.”

They walked for another ten minutes before they came out into a narrow clearing. Uncle Jack was waiting there, sitting on a fallen tree.

“What’s this place, Dad?”

“It’s an old logging road,” Uncle Jack answered.  “We can walk along here for a ways—I wouldn’t want you two to get lost now, would I?”

Ty wasn’t so sure.

They walked down the old logging road with the morning sun overhead.  On this old road it was almost completely quiet. Their footsteps were hushed whispers like the ghosts Ty could sometimes hear before he fell asleep at night. The silence was only occasionally interrupted by the creaking of a leather hiking boot as they walked along the grassy, abandoned road. The walking was easy because there was no underbrush. They didn’t speak for a while. They just walked.  At one point Uncle Jack said, “It’s so peaceful.” Ty had never heard Uncle Jack’s voice sound like that before. They continued to walk for what seemed to Ty like the rest of the morning.

The sun was off to their left when Ty asked, “How much longer do we have to go?”

“I told you not to bring him along! I told you he’d be whining the whole time!”

“He hasn’t,” Ty’s father objected.  “He’s been pretty good all morning.”

Jack scoffed at the thought. “We’ve got a helluva long way to go yet, kid. So, you’d better get used to walking or go back to the car right now!”

“I don’t want to go back to the car,” Ty pleaded.

“He’s only kidding, Ty.  You don’t have to go back to the car.” Ty’s father stopped walking. Then Ty and Jack stopped.

“What now?” Jack asked irritably.

“Here, carry this for a while.” Ty’s father handed Jack the Rimfire that he had brought along for the boy. “Come here, son.” Ty walked over to where his father was. His father bent down and lifted the boy up onto his huge shoulders. They continued their hike down the old logging road. Ty felt like he was in his father’s office, looking down at everything below.

“Shit! My old man never carried me through no goddamned woods! You can bet your ass on that. What you need is his old leather razor strap to straighten that kid out and toughen him up.”

“That’s enough, Jack. Everybody’s father is not like yours,” Ty’s father said in a measured tone. Jack obeyed the command. He always obeyed when the big man’s voice had that tone.

Ty’s father was much bigger and taller than Jack and would have had no trouble whipping him if he ever got mad enough. They did many things together and Ty’s father was always tolerant of Jack’s manner–to a point. “You can only blame so much on your upbringing,” Ty’s father had said to Jack many times. Ty had seen this before. Whenever his father’s voice got that hard tone, Uncle Jack would shut up.

They walked quietly for another mile and then turned into the woods again. Ty, riding on his father’s shoulders, followed Uncle Jack. The underbrush wasn’t as thick here as it was in the first part of the woods. The walking was easy between the trees. All the branches were high and only occasionally did Ty have to duck his head.

Ty enjoyed the woods as he bounced quietly to the rhythm of his father’s footsteps.  Suddenly, they stopped. Ty wasn’t sure what was going on. Maybe there was a snake on the ground. He looked around. He saw Uncle Jack slowly raise his rifle. Ty looked in the direction of Uncle Jack’s aim. About a hundred yards off through the trees he saw it.

“Look, Dad. A deer!”

The buck bolted at the sound of Ty’s voice and the crack of Jack’s rifle echoed through the woods.

“Goddamsonofabitch!” Jack turned furiously to Ty’s father. “That bastard had to be at least, AT LEAST a twelve point!”

Ty’s father turned his gaze to the ground. “Do you think you hit him?”

“Hell, I don’t know. I’ll have to check the ground for blood.” Jack pulled the bolt on his rifle and ejected the expended shell.

“Dad, I gotta pee.”

Ty’s father lowered him to the ground. He looked around and then pointed to a tree behind them. “Go over there and go.” Then he bent down and looked Ty directly in the eyes.  “Now listen,” he said gently, but sternly. “You take a leak over there and wait there until we get back.  You understand? Don’t move from that tree.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied meekly.

“What are you going to do, now?” his father quizzed.

“I’m going to wait by that tree,” he echoed, “until you get back.”

“That’s right. Just keep repeating those words over and over to yourself so you won’t forget.”

Ty walked over to the appointed tree and, facing it, unzipped his jeans. Wait by the tree until they get back. He looked over his shoulder and watched his father and Uncle Jack walk to where the deer had been. Ty finished his leak and zipped his pants back up. He started to follow the two men. Wait by the tree until they get back. He rushed back to the tree hoping they hadn’t seen him wander. He stood watching them, careful to remain within reach of the tree. His father and Uncle Jack were looking around on the ground where the deer had been. He saw Uncle Jack stomp around a bit and then point at Ty’s father. His father put up one hand like the white-gloved policemen do. Uncle Jack stomped around some more and waved his arms in the air. Ty’s father said something and then Uncle Jack started walking in the direction the deer had gone. Ty’s father came walking back toward the tree.

“Where’d Uncle Jack go, Dad?” Ty asked.

“He’s tracking the buck.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s winged it and it’s bleeding a lot.” Ty’s father picked him up again, only this time the boy rode cradled in the crook of his father’s arm. Ty held on with both arms around his father’s neck. The man picked up the two rifles and started walking.

“Are we tracking the buck, too?”

“No, son.  We’re going back to the Jeep.”

“Why?”

“Jack can track the buck by himself.”

“Why doesn’t he just let it go?”

“Because it’s wounded.”

Ty rode in his father’s arm and looked back behind them to see if he could see Uncle Jack or the deer.  There was no trace of either.

“What’s wounded, Dad?”

“He shot the deer, but didn’t kill it, Ty. So it’s probably in pain. Uncle Jack’s got to track it down and kill it.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the humanitarian thing to do,” Ty’s father said patiently. “It’s not right to let an animal suffer through whatever life it has left.”

As they came out of the trees and back onto the old logging road, Ty’s father put him down so he could walk on his own. The big man stared quietly off into the distance as they walked.

“Dad?” Ty asked as he put his left hand into his father’s huge right paw.

“What, son?”

“I hope I don’t never get wounded.”

Ty’s father simply nodded as they walked along quietly, tiny hand in huge paw, between the two ruts in the old logging road.

 


 

the museum

The thing reminded him of a bloody rag—all gore and ruin—discarded unceremoniously into a bucket.

Or maybe a jar of wild berry jam smashed and smeared against the subway tiles. No. It was a tourniquet.

The museum was quiet—more so than usual. Disinterested patrons wandered from one exhibit to the next, sometimes commenting, other times grunting some sort of opinion.

Behind him, a child asked his mother—momma, what’s he doing?

He’s waiting, darling—he’s just waiting. And he was, too. He’d been waiting for a long time.

The museum rooms were wide. Some were much bigger, by far, than others. Skylights allowed natural light to fill open spaces. Almost everything was white or beige or polished redwood. Each room had a surplus of seating. Each room showcased this or that.

He noticed flecks of blue hiding among the purple, which had been hiding among the red and the black.

This thing seemed like an aftermath.

Everyone is an exhibitionist. Each exhibit lasted only as long as an attention span. Some pieces lived on pedestals encased in glass; others were touchable. Everything could be broken.

Didn’t anyone just die of natural causes anymore? He felt himself growing tired. No one ever just died during sleep. It was always something else. Leukemia. Cancer. Self-inflicted: shotgun slugs through the back of the head. An overdose of atenolol.

What a bloody mess. All of it.

What time was it? The museum would be closing soon. He wondered if they had bothered hiring guards to watch over these relics—these pieces of art. Who in their right mind would steal any of this shit? This wasn’t the MoMA. Or the Smithsonian.

His ass was numb; legs asleep.

It looked like a rotten apple orchard. No. It reminded him of the cannery and it smelled of guts and scales; machine oil and bleach; rust, rust, rust.

Behind him, a child asking his mother. Within him, a heart slowing down. Around him, so much wasted time, effort—life.

 


 

How to become jealous of a balloon (among other things)

The child is given one red balloon on a hot summer day. She holds on tightly to the string in her tiny pudgy hands. She stares at her distorted reflection in the red orb. The sun stains a white spot of light on the red, and every time the child tries to touch it, it is gone.

“Hold tightly,” Mommy says, watching the child bounce the balloon upside down like a basketball in slow motion, or like holding a toy ship under the bathwater.

The balloon is often one of the first synthetic gifts given to a human from the world. In this case, the world is inside a jolly middle aged man behind a booth. His smile is wider than the child’s as he receives the parents’ pocket change so that they may present this gift to her. But when they are gone, that man sits behind his booth on a tree stump, sneaking drags off a smoke or drops from a flask.

The child is illuminated by this gift.

Hold me. The string is my umbilical cord. You hold me, though I am meant to be free—the sky is pulling at me. I want what is up there, though I am ignorant of such bliss. You wouldn’t understand. Even when they put man on the moon, you put him in a suit to keep him from being free. The universe is calling him. You don’t know what is up there. Neither do I.

The child tugs the red balloon along for a walk with her parents. They go to see the zebras, grand horses God painted black and white. She then remembers her teacher, scolding her for coloring a monkey purple, green, and black. If God can paint animals striped, why can’t I?

They go to visit the hippopotamus, which reminds her of Nanna, who is large and slow, always ordering her to pour water onto her wrinkled back as she bathes. I bet she would be happy if a bird sat on her shoulder. The girl thinks some more.

The balloon has never seen such things, only stretched visions of a limited world and strangers’ faces reflected off of other balloons in the bunch, tied with a string. The balloon has always felt horribly normal, bouncing in a crowd like an orphan waiting for a parent.

Hold me. The string is my umbilical cord. Show me the world, that I may know what it is to be different.

Then a frightening thing occurrs.

Just as a juggler creates a whirl of colored balls, another child, his eyes following the balls higher and higher, lets go of a balloon to point at the juggler. The balloon floats higher and higher until it becomes a black star in the blue sky. The juggler has no umbilical cord, no connection to the child, and leaves. The child follows, only to be pulled back by his mother tugging at his sleeve. He then begins to cry, whining for his balloon. He doesn’t want another balloon. He wants his balloon.

Don’t let me go.

A child’s crying is contagious to other children, and the little girl begins to cry as well, but she doesn’t let go of her balloon. She had felt the boy’s despair, and somewhere inside of her, she vows to never let her red balloon go.

On the car ride home, Daddy complains about the red balloon getting in the way of his driving, so the girl cradles the balloon in her arms.

“Careful not to pop it sweetie,” Mommy says.

Never have I been held so gently.

Even when the red balloon loses its capability to fly, and the sky no longer yearns for a balloon past its prime, she keeps it in her closet with the elderly balloons, and at night she dances in her private ballroom.

 


 

Hakuna Majibu Kwa Waliojeruhiwa

No Answers for the Wounded

It is snowing today as I stare out the window revising a story about a church, a snowstorm, a large hill, and a seven-year-old learning to fly. It is not a real snow now.  Just flurries. I am reminded of the Swahili phrase, hakuna theluji. No snow.

 

In 1994 my ego was shot. As far as I was concerned, I was fine and fit for duty—but the flight surgeon had other ideas. Doctors were just beginning to understand the real-life ramifications of concussions. “You’ve had too many,” he said. “I cannot certify you safe. You are as wounded as these other men.” Waliojeruhiwa.

 

I’d never viewed my job from a safety standpoint before. Risk-takers were valued. I mean, how could you hop into the middle of a firefight, snatch some wounded and hop out again if you weren’t a risk-taker? I was good because I was a risk-taker.

 

I knew I could still fly, but I also knew deep down that I was done, or more precisely, they were done with me. All that was left was waiting six months for the United States government to do six hours’ worth of paperwork.

 

I took thirty days leave from the choppy seas of the Indian Ocean, left the U.S.S. Ranger and went to Kenya. Humiliation bubbled inside as someone else flew my battered brain and its crusty shell ashore.

 

Wandering around Nairobi, it occurred to me that Mt. Kilimanjaro was only 200 kilometers away. With a shrug of the shoulders, wearing only fire hose fatigues and a form-fitting t-shirt, I hopped a bus and headed south to Tanzania to visit one of my favorite Hemingway stories.

 

Morbid, gangrenous thoughts filled the six-hour and thirty-two minute bus ride. My friends received the easy, quick and honorable exit while I was left behind to face a slow, lonely, useless end.

 

Hemingway believed that every man’s life ends the same way; the difference is in how they lived. I wondered as we bounced down the road, had I not led a good and noble life? Had I been doing my job for excitement rather than honorable reasons?

 

I thought it ironic that the birth name I despised was also the name of Hemingway’s rotting character.

Forty-five minutes outside Moshi we passed the Kilimanjaro International Airport. IATA: abbreviation, KIA. Killed In Action, I thought. The bumpy bus ride did not help my headache.

 

Once in Moshi, I exited the bus at the foot of Kilimanjaro and stood at the base of an eastern Tanzanian trailhead with tall cornfields on one side and a pine forest on the other.  Without much consideration, encumbered only by my swollen brain and shriveled pride, I began a solo hike up the Marangu route—the oldest, most well established route to the Uhuru peak.

 

Though it is the easiest trail, guides avoid taking clients up Marangu because the scenery is not as majestic. I wasn’t looking for majestic. Only majibu. An answer.

 

The temperature dropped as I gained altitude.

 

On day three, halfway up the mountain I bought a coat and gloves from the Horombo Hut. They recommended an acclimation day for the thin air. I declined.

 

Two mornings later I stopped at a sign.

 

 

YOU ARE NOW AT

GILMAN’S POINT, 5681M. AMSL

TANZANIA

WELCOME AND CONGRATULATIONS

 

 

Uhuru Point was to my left. Reusch Crater to the right. Which fork?

 

 

The steep price I’d paid did not keep the bitter cold and wind from penetrating my Horombo coat as I stood at the summit.

 

No vultures, hyenas, or frozen leopards.

 

The snow was not white, fluffy, and plentiful.

 

Just sparse.

 

Dirty.

 

Gray gravel and brown spots littered the small patches of snow.

 

This was not Everest.

 

My legs felt fine.

 

There are no answers for the wounded.

 


A Flame, A Light

Have you truly never heard of our General? He is the most famous man who has ever lived. He has led the formerly divided countries to unification. He has stopped all war. He has made our land the richest in history. He has demolished all prejudices and boundaries of race and sex and personal identity. He has colonized the moon, the stars, and the bottom of the ocean. And He has discovered Life there. He has spoken with the Goddess and all of Her angels. And He has brought peace among and between every planetary species.

And today is His funeral.

 

I was never able to see Him with my own eyes. By the time I was taken from my family to become a soldier—some twenty years ago—our General was already an old man. He was able to make decisions to keep us in peace, of course, but unable to fight Himself.

There was a rumor that claimed He had been transferred to a cottage near the sea, sitting idly, His lips hard and shaking, watching the eternal roll of water over the sand. Some said that the General ate nothing but the crust of bread, and that the crumbs passed his lips and fell onto his off-colored tunic as if they were snowflakes. A maid, they said, would wipe the crumbs away with a feather brush.

Yet others claimed that the General was confined to a wheelchair (or even simply lay between two pale sheets from day to day) and that he looked longingly with cloudy eyes out at the rolling water—stupefied—as if he had completely forgotten who He was.

Those were only rumors, though, overheard in bathroom stalls or under bridges.

We who were young once, with minds as clear and empty as the cloudless sky, never imagined that memories crumble as even mountains do over time.

But my mother says that when the General was younger, long before the War, His presence was felt in every city and every village, dripping through the cracks of walls like so much rainwater between ancient adobe dwellings. Nothing was more impossible than to escape the influence of the General.

 

In the days when the General was young and well, He and forty or fifty men would ride from village to village throughout the countryside on horseback. Red dust belched from the road, covering the soldiers’ bodies in a thin dark film. The General met with village councilors and spoke to the last remaining poor.

His voice rattled deep within your heart. His dark eyes flashed like lightening. He spoke to you with a calmness, almost in meditation, which, if you could speak to the General for long enough, made you feel as if it were not He, but you, who were the General—the most important man who has ever lived.

He met with the women, put his dark soil-stained hands on their shoulders, hugged them and kissed them, and asked them what had worried them. One might say that the water in the village was low, or dirty, or polluted. Within the hour, the General would send twenty men to the seaside, gather another hundred—boatmakers, woodworkers, stonemasons—and they would build an aqueduct (just like the Ancients) one hundred miles to the village before sunset. The General admired the Ancients more than anyone else, you know.

It was not long before an aqueduct supplied every village with water—and the poor, like puddles lying under the hot sun, vanished. To be poor was the most taboo offense. There was no excuse to be poor while the General was alive.

The General would comfort mothers who lost their children in battle, or soothe grieving widows with bread and wine, and celebrate the lives of their husbands. In battle before the General, the bodies of fallen comrades lay in the fields, the black dirt of the earth saturated with blood. The General ensured that everybody was scooped up like marbles after conflict and returned home. When many bodies returned to a single village at once, a festival was held at dusk—a delight for us, the living. The festival was enough, I have been told, to dry the bitterest tears.

The General ordered fifty men and a hundred more to launch fireworks and carve out chairs from the knotted banyan trees. Later, when the cool silence stretched over the lake, far off in the distance, with the women sitting and weeping in the chairs, the General’s men released several wooden warships and lit them aflame—our comrades sleeping eternally aboard the ships.

The villagers watched them smolder until sunrise. Soon the General’s choir, which was made up of His ten beautiful wives, sang the most mournful melodies the widows had ever heard. Throughout the night, the burning embers floated into the sky, entangled among the caliginous sidereal mosaic, soon blessed by the dancing Goddess. Shimmering ignis fatuus. 

These types of festivities are now held only in our memory. We do not celebrate the lives of fallen comrades like this anymore. These were the times of battles. They used to call these times—even as they lived them—the Time of Bloodshed, the time long before He left for His cottage by the sea. If you only knew what was to happen over the next thirty years, you too would say, as we do now, that it was, rather, the Time Before.

 

And thus the War came. During the earliest parts of the War, the General charged with his men into battle on foot, silently. The General’s Red Manual tells us that a battle must be made in silence—between trees, behind bushes, running downhill with the white glow of the sun casting your silhouette at the enemy. The point of a battle, He tells us, is not to kill the most enemies, but to have the enemy think they are being killed, or even worse. The imagination is a hundred times more powerful an adversary in every case.

The General never lost a battle, but many of his lieutenants had. After a defeat, the General stormed to the home village of the losing lieutenant and paced around the streets. The horse’s hooves kicked up dust, which leaked through the glassless windows and covered the peasants’ light brown skin. A white bell in the clock tower foretold His arrival. It was customary for the oldest member of each family to rush into the street to greet Him. He would look into each person’s eyes as he rode by, making his way to the Holy House at the end of the street. There, ten children wearing white robes greeted him with candles. He took the children inside the Holy House and prayed. He prayed unlike anyone the villagers had ever seen. It is said He prayed like the ancient Christians—on his knees, his dirt-stained palms pressed together, whispering words in a foreign and forgotten tongue—all to Himself. Only the faint movement of his lips revealed a word or two.

When he finished, he pinched the tips of his fingers together and moved his right hand once vertically from his forehead to his heart, then horizontally from one shoulder to the other. Then he would do the most miraculous thing: when he was finally finished praying to the Goddess, one of the village women would hand him a triangular piece of Fainá and he would feed it to one of the children. He then then stood up, left the Holy House, mounted his horse, and rode off in total silence. The child who had received the Fainá became the priest of the Holy House because that child was thought to have connected with the General in a way that resembled the Goddess.

Never more than a week later, a report would come to the village detailing the events that occurred after the General departed: In short, the General’s battalion would liquidate the enemy that had defeated his lieutenant. In truth the General was also sure to publicly humiliate His losing lieutenant in the village. I have only seen such a display once, when I was very young. It was not executed by the General—never! The General would only ask in the form of a telegraph: Who is this lieutenant’s wife? If the lieutenant did not have a wife, He would ask: Who is this lieutenant’s father? If he had no father, then his mother. If the lieutenant had no family, the General asked for his closest friend. When this selection was over, the lieutenant was stripped naked in the middle of the city Platz, dipped in boiling oil by the lowest members of his battalion, and dragged under the golden statue of the winged Goddess. The lieutenant was taken by his arms and legs and forced to drink one or two libations before his wife, father, mother, or closest friend was brought to him. His soldiers tied him to a clumsily carved stone chair that the General had stolen straight from the soft dying hands of the suzerain. They situated the lieutenant’s father, mother, or friend directly in front of him, gazing into his eyes. Then they were told to shout: You have shamed me! You have shamed us all! This, all while the lieutenant’s skin slowly hardened like the brittle shell of an egg. This procedure would continue for hours. When the sun turned orange and the sky purple and a handful of milky stars revealed themselves in the east, a group of five men, usually lower ranking officials in the lieutenant’s brigade, took scolding hot pokers from the fire that had been built during the earlier proceedings. The two ends of the pokers came together at a point like pincers. They were so large that two men needed to hold both hands on each handle. Another three men, after dragging the horrible metal device out of the flames, grabbed ahold of the lieutenant’s flesh and twisted viciously.  Flesh puts up a worthy fight, so the men would always twist more and more tenaciously—

But enough of this! I cannot go on.

 

When the second half of the War started it snowed for many months, and it continued into the warm season when it began to hail. But soon the hail turned to rain and the rain to fog.

My first battle began around this time. It was also my last before the funeral. There was thunder. And there were flashes of lightening that blanketed the horizon. It started to rain, and it fell so hard it felt like so many tears covering my face. I thanked the General and the Goddess for the rain because nobody could see the real tears streaming down so quickly into my mouth.

By the second half of the War, the General was too old to fight in the battles himself. A new lieutenant had taken over for Him. He sat on his horse in front of us all, at the edge of an open field. We prayed in the same manner the General had prayed to the Goddess—a bowed head, legs bent at the knee, palms pressed flat together. Soil-stained fingers laced like the branches of the banyan tree.

I cannot say, for I do not recall, how many strikes of thunder it took for us to reach the edge of the mountain. All I can say is that it did not feel like running. We glided on silver wind, behind the inimitable wings of the Goddess.

 

Near the end of the battle—I knew it was the end. We all knew. The sun, far off, went nearly behind the mountain, and I saw the Goddess sitting above on a large stone at the horizon, the white glare of the sun casting her silhouette flat against the field.  The rain fell off Her dark porcelain skin, and her robes curled in rounded bends, kicking to and fro in the wind.

We pushed back harder and harder, like a wave, completely unstoppable. All I could hear at that time, screaming in my head, was the voice of the General: Faster! Faster! I had never heard His voice before then, and I have not heard it since. But it was His voice I heard. I know it. The sound of His deep voice sounded in my mind over and over like an infinitely ringing bell. It was so close—closer to me than my own mind and just as inseparable. I did not have to recognize it, as you do not have to recognize the voice of a dear friend who has been gone, even a long time. I knew it was Him. I knew it, I still know it, and now that is all I know. You would know it, too. Wouldn’t you?

 

No one was ever mistaken that the General was this man standing in front of them. Nothing was more impossible. It was not my mother who told me this, but my mother’s mother. She had seen the General when he was a young man—before the poor vanished, before the new punishments were put into law. Before the fingers and hands of the soldiers and the working peasants were stained from the earth and from blood. She told me that His thick beard stretched to his knees. And when he spoke, he spoke with the deep voice of the Goddess. And his skin was so dark it looked like black soil. Soil from which we—three generations of soldiers—sprouted and fought. We called Him General, but He was King.

_____

 

A week ago—a week before the General’s funeral—there was a new lieutenant in charge of our brigade. He was slim with thin shoulders and a narrow waist, and his hands were permanently stained the dark color of dirt.  He wore a metal helmet that looked both black and gold, which covered all but his eyes. He arrived on horseback and for three days remained sitting there, strolling around the campsite, his eyes only briefly glancing at each of us.

On the third night, while the fire blazed in our faces and we sang a tune, I saw the lieutenant moving his thin finger over a creased map. He ran his finger along the river bends, outlining an invisible circle around locations I could not make out. With his other gloved hand he caressed the side of his face, perhaps recalling (as the General recalled) those sweet and ancient victories that were without doubt permanently etched as hard red lines across his cheek.

The night was cool and we were allowed to drink for the first time in many months. Three of us took out what bottles hadn’t been stolen or broken from the previous weeks’ fighting. Where’s my brew? Someone asked. Another responded saying that the whole lot had to be unloaded after the last rush. Unloaded? The first said, his voice rising, What do you mean “unloaded”? I mean we had to leave it behind or we would have all died, said the second in a voice matching in escalation. The first man took a metal bottle in his dirty soil-stained hands and smashed it against a rock. That’s completely against protocol, he said, finally yelling. It’s against the wishes of the General, and the Goddess that you destroy someone’s personal property. He smashed the bottle against the rock a second and third time, finally forming the shape of a blade.  The man’s chest rose and fell in angry succession. A third man tried to move in-between the two but the first had lunged a moment before.

Just as the second man lunged, the first was grabbed from behind over his mouth and chest by two guerilla fighters and pulled into the woods that surrounded us. Then a volley of screams and hoots rained down.  All of the men in our battalion grabbed any weapon they could find and ran off into the woods two by two. I found a spear and a small pistol and was about to run after the others when I felt a hand grab my shoulder. It was our new Lieutenant.  He was still on horseback and I gazed up to him. When he shook his head I dropped my pistol and spear to the ground. I heard the swift rustling of leaves and the snapping of twigs—the unfriendly hostility of occupied darkness.

The Lieutenant seized the underside of my arm and lifted me onto the horse. We rode off in the opposite direction from the rest of the men.  The Lieutenant smacked the horse with his switch and the horse cried out. We galloped through the forest for many miles, over hills and through swiftly coursing rivers. I once tried to ask where we were going, where were we going but the Lieutenant simply struck the horse over and over without answering.

We came to another clearing in the middle of a group of banyan trees and stopped for a moment. The Lieutenant looked around in the darkness. Only the light of the moon and the Goddess’s reverent gaze cast light upon the overturned leaves, the blackly silhouetted banyan trees, and the ripples in the waves of the river. For a moment the horse stopped its heavy breathing and we were engulfed in silence. There was no wind nor rustling of gravel nor twitching of branches. I looked up to the stars and the winking galaxies of the Goddess.

Do you know what I wondered in that moment? I wondered what the Lieutenant was wondering—what his plans were, why he had taken me, why it was that we had fled the battlefield. Sir, I tried to say, my voice horse and asperate, Sir we have violated the wishes of both the Goddess and the General. Did you hear me, Sir, we—then he covered my mouth with his gloved hand, nearly breaking my nose with the top of his palm. He removed his hand and again looked out into the few clearings of the banyan trees.

My eyes partially adjusted to the darkness after these few moments. The Lieutenant pointed out far into the distance with a finger of his gloved hand. I saw, barely visible, the evanescent smoke rising above the line where the trees met the sky. The Lieutenant smacked the horse once more, and once more it cried out, echoing into the night.

Then I heard an explosion of sound; an inexpressible blast from one side.  It was the blast of guerilla cannon fire. The horse began to run again but the Lieutenant lost control of the reigns and fell back into my arms. My eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness and I saw that the Lieutenant’s jaw had been ripped off. I stared into the Lieutenant’s face, which now looked up at the stars with an empty, half-faced smile. I realized that I was looking at the face of the Lieutenant who had always been covered by metal that seemed both black and gold. I realized that I was looking at the face of a dead woman.

 

We continued to ride throughout the night on the Goddess’s golden wings.  The wind carried us in complete silence until I caught glimpse of a raging fire and the flag of our comrades. I made our approach known and the medical tent was prepared by the time we arrived. I leapt off the horse and lifted the Lieutenant from it, noticing how weightless she felt. I managed to restore parts of her helmet to cover her face. I carried her into the medical tent but there were no nurses waiting. Instead, as I drew back the curtain, four large men in black robes took the Lieutenant’s body from my arms and placed her on a table. Then a child in white robes came from behind another curtain. I knew she was a priest because of the golden wings of the Goddess she wore around her neck. I stood in the entryway, staring at the five moving and one motionless bodies. In a moment the four black-robed men stopped what they were doing and moved their faces toward me in unison. I stared back at their gazing eyes. Everything was silent, only the whispered prayers of the priest were heard between us, like a stream rolling over pebbles.

I heard a gentle mist begin to fall on the tent. Then the mist turned to rain and I walked out of the tent into a downpour.

 

I was sent home that night. But when I arrived the news had made its way before me. Not the news of another fallen lieutenant—which nobody had even mentioned—but the news that the General was dead. There were no festivals nor events of public mourning planned before the funeral—nothing but the cloistered silence of a million speechless voices.

The message of the General’s death came to each home from a messenger on horseback. He unfurled the scroll in the middle of the city Platz and announced the conditions. It followed the rumors we had always heard—somewhere through the forest, deep over the hills, nestled in a lakeside cottage the General died in His sleep. There were no more details, no extra information about His death. In a sense, He was as enigmatic in death as He was in life.

That evening, I received a message from the Central Authority, who had taken over the administrative duties of the General. They asked if I would like to sit in the Honor Detail at the General’s funeral. Without even thinking I wrote a hasty reply in the affirmative.

 

_____

 

Nearly five days have passed since then and here I now sit with my palms in my lap in the area nearest the coffin. Hundreds of thousands are sitting in a massive open field, flat and empty, except for the small wooden Holy House. The sky is clear and the sun beats down over us. It is cool, though, and the wind passes through the masses like so much rainwater through ancient adobe dwellings.

I flip through a number of pages of the program. Most of them are filled with lengthy passages about one memory or another written by an elder.

Elders surround me on both sides, sitting on bended knees above a soft ornate rug. I do not recognize any of them. Now that I am forced to think of it, I do not think I have ever seen an elder in the flesh.  How can this be? I have always pictured what an elder would look like, yet I have never seen one before me, with my own eyes. Long ago, I suppose, I had an image of what one must be like—an elder, therefore, grey hair, stretched and wrinkled skin, spine arched like the knotted banyan trees, thin white robes, perhaps smelling like the clean odor of flowers.

The procession is half over by the time I realize that the casket has remained closed throughout the duration. No sooner do I realize this, however, than the priest proclaims something in a language I do not recognize, and groups of elders from either side of me take to their feet and begin to move toward the casket of the General. One tugs at my shoulder and I rise with them. As we are walking, the priest opens the top portion of the casket. I imagine it is made from the dark wood of the banyan tree.

I look at the hands of the priest who is still gripping the top of the casket, her fingers wrapped around the edging. They are soft and pale. Her nails are clean and there is no discoloration in the bends of her fingers. Her white robes droop in even pools of silk over the modest curves in her body. A pair of golden wings hangs over her shoulders. I look at my own hands and notice, for the first time in my life, that they are stained the black color of the earth. The bends of my fingers protrude in different, oddly shaped bulges.

The smooth right hand of the priest guides me to the casket.

I only glance at the General, whose eyes are closed and whose soil-stained fingers are laced together over His chest. I did not mean to notice His hands, or the way His desiccated fingers uncovered the slightly pinkish portion of the otherwise yellow-ridged fingernails. He is so small in there, lying beside the Goddess. His face reveals two high cheekbones, though His beard obscures His thin red lips.

A silver wind blows round us and I see—only once—a little tapered corner where the General’s beard quivers away from His skin. For a moment a tremor runs the length of my body, for I realize that the General, miles under His beard, is smiling a half-faced smile.

 


Felt

When his wife turned her head, George Washington snuck into the elevator, leaving his family behind. As they clumsily consoled one another, he rapidly pressed the “Close Door” button.  When the doors shut, George was finally alone. The escape was a small reprieve and one he needed.  His chin fell into his chest and his eyes closed. George squeezed them tight and tried not to look at the backs of his eyelids. He shook his head and opened his eyes and pressed button number seven. Martha, his wife, bless her soul, was already in a panic. This happened despite the fact that it was not her mother who had come under a mystery illness. His mother was old, her time had come. This was nature, George had told his wife. Martha, however, did not defer to his reasoning. “They don’t even know what it is! It’s unnatural, dear.” The elevator popped and rose and he felt the lift in his chest before he felt it in his feet. Up he went. The numbers glowed and left: Two. Three. Four. George heard a sound that came deep and thick into the shaft and the elevator jumped and stilled. It was such a sound and feeling that he knew everyone in the hospital must have heard and felt it also. There were cries outside the doors but he could not make out what was being said. George realized he had been pressing the “Open Door” button rapidly ever since the sound rumbled into the elevator.  His ear and nose pressed on the crack of the doors as his fingertips searched along the slit in order to pry them apart but there was not enough lip for him to pull. Nor could he seep or slither out like air. Outside, the noise grew in volume as people bawled by. Words came into his new cage and he hollered back hoping for them to catch and exchange. He pushed and slapped his palms on the metal doors then chopped and punched them in stupid percussion. George shrieked and his fists ached. It couldn’t have been an earthquake—there was just the one quick strike; tremors linger and throb for a bit then fade like an echo. Sirens, now, howled one with the people.  A mad choir ran amok and the pandemonium was fixed.  George yelled his mother’s name—her first, middle and last name. Her maiden name, her goddamned birth year; the room she was in. “Martha!” He wailed. Suddenly there was pounding on the outside of the elevator door and someone shouted at close range asking if anyone was in there and he said yes many times. It was the fire department, the voice said, and don’t worry buddy we’ll get you out of there in no time. His heart warmed as they worked fiercely at the doors with tools he imagined were impressive and stout and made of steel. George knew that these were the right men to operate them and he could see some jostling at the slit. A pry-bar peeked through and George staggered back in joy, shouting, “There you go, you got it!” A voice neared, screaming. George put his ear against the ill-found wall again and heard the fireman say that this can’t be. Shouts of go go go and get out of here now goddamn it distracted him from the progress at the door which had ceased. “I’m so sorry, Brother,” came through the door instead of the man; then it drew quiet, save a few thin creaks and squalls, wicked and random, that the building made. George plucked madly at the nub of steel poking through but his fingers just slipped off. In three minutes George will begin to weep and now he is weeping and rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands as now only the sirens beseech. Down two flights, the firefighter pauses, turns, and charges back up the stairwell toward the man caught in the shaft. George’s mind seems to retreat, then go everywhere. For a moment, he feels sublime. Then it’s gone. He crouches against the wall and hugs his knees tight to his breast. The floor ups and twists as he feels a terrific torque from this way and that and the emergency light pops once like a snapshot and in a few moments George Washington will be dead and down to one wish in the feeble black he huddles his family tightly, stuffing them inside his ribcage and then three and two and one his architecture is pulled apart, obliged to shreds, muscle, blood, and piss dispatched betwixt the iron and glass, amongst flashes of day and flashes of night, his gore mingles with the dusty fare abloom above the city and his once impressive posture is now a chance, wet mortar aground in the new stock fate, that turns to fire, that turns to dung.

 

 


Swimming Free

In my pale white skin, I dived beneath burnished black and brown skins.
It had once been a whites-only pool.
Now free, Africans outnumbered Indians and Europeans.
This blue pool in Livingstone was my favorite, near an ice cream shop.

It had once been a whites-only pool.
On the water, a glittering sun ignited blazing white star showers.
This blue pool in Livingstone was my favorite, near an ice cream shop.
I dove deep beneath starry sparkles dancing off dark skin.

On the water, a glittering sun ignited blazing white star showers.
Bright white sparkles glistened on dark bodies.
I dove deep beneath starry sparkles dancing off dark skin.
In chromatic groups, their skin schooled and flashed.

Bright white sparkles glistened on dark bodies.
A small school of Indians crowded in the shallows.
In chromatic groups, their skin schooled and flashed.
I turned on my back and looked up at white, flashing away from black.

A small school of Indians crowded in the shallows.
They swam into deep water and three tear-drop pods formed a circle.
I turned on my back and looked up at white flashing away from black.
Each group marked its boundaries, Indian, European and African.

They swam into deep water and three tear-drop pods formed a circle.
This new world’s shifting boundaries constantly tested.
Each group marked its boundaries, Indian, European and African,
flashed brown, black and white, approached, retreated, dived and surfaced.

This new world’s shifting boundaries constantly tested.
In the privacy of the bush, to chirping cicadas, I talked with Africans and whites. Here
flashed brown, black and white, approached, retreated, dived and surfaced.
Here, in this pool of unity, in the waters of ancient quarrels, my world dissolved.

In the privacy of the bush, to chirping cicadas, I talked with Africans and whites. Here
a taijitu in three parts, three colors, inseparable, in motion.
Here, in this pool of unity, in the waters of ancient quarrels, my world dissolved.
Today, they swam together in waters from the Zambezi.

A taijitu in three parts, three colors, inseparable, in motion.
Now free, Africans outnumbered Indians and Europeans.
Today, they swam together in waters from the Zambezi.
In my pale white skin, I dived beneath burnished black and brown skins.

 


Torn-paper Clouds

The paper on which

the poetry lives shivers.

She turns her head

hesitantly, afraid of the crash

of Love’s wave,

its crest’s froth as white as

clouds, and she hopes, just as distant.

Hope: that false hero of the mind –

red memories blacken upon

the effort to remember from

a forced purge of the heart.

Sailing splinters of light bar the heavens,

torn-paper clouds recede and sink

into heavy blue, submerged in sky.

Thrashing words streak off the page

smeared like teardrops to mascara.

Skidded sunbeam horizon

from earth’s incomplete revolution;

night threatens with apathy

and will soon splash over day.

She turns her head

hesitantly, afraid of the crash:

though void of influence,

her finger tests the water; then

the poem is wholly flooded.

Weeping periods drip

from shipwrecked lines and

moonlit currents carry them to

no recipient.

 


 

Doves

I was meant to

forget my wallet

in order that I might

come back

to my room

and write this poem

about

these doves

I saw,

pale gray, purple

and gliding

bellies

fat with spring,

little moons

with wings

diving,

dividing,

and reuniting.

 


The Good wife

I associated myself with apron strings,

Rings and tied up in it-

A hundred generations

Of scouring.

Trying to find myself in it.

 

I kept it clean, pristine, cooked

And put out

Until I didn’t.

I couldn’t breathe when

He pushed me up against the cupboards

Against the stove and

I couldn’t breath when he didn’t.

 

He wouldn’t let me leave

Brick mortar and dust

Fragments of fiction and time

Walls so thick, I couldn’t go.

 

Just so I would know.

Stay in your place.

Without raising his voice

Without leaving a bruise.

 

Doors not made for opening.

Hinges bent on closing in.

 

His eyes, the pained struggle to control

Himself from snapping me-

Then snapping control back.

 

Fighting himself,

My hands held behind so I couldn’t move.

Again, and again then progressively more aggressive.

 

Facing two men and neither would look at me.

See or hear

Me.

I was on my own.

 

Killing everything to be reborn.

I flew as far as I could go.

In little sneaking shadowed hops

Looking for a breeze,

Trying to guard before rising-

 

Just a string tied between us

And I have to chat and make nice

As we exchange the children.

 

My mother proclaimed it luck.

 

I didn’t really get hurt

Even the officer seemed reluctant filing a report

The hubby in handcuffs was my fault.

Other women gave me looks.

I was being dramatic

As a “victim” I was lacking satisfactory evidence

Show me your bloody parts.

 

My sister told me

-Even years later-

I should have stayed

For the sake of the kids

And the “security.”

 

In court,

He was given a second chance.

I wasn’t allowed to speak.

But I was allowed to write a statement.

 

My. Five. Page. Letter. To the judge

-Which he found very interesting-

Paused the entire courthouse.

 

Case upon case of civil disputes

Packed waiting inside and outside the room

And the judge on his wooden throne,

Reading.

 

A quiet shuffling ten minutes.

The difference in the Judges view,

Expression,

A change in tone-

Husbanding the pardoned.

 

I know what he was capable of.

I got away with something

I was spared

A heavy hand;

A child spared due punishment for breaking codes.

Customary curtains and shushing.

 

And I have thought myself weak

And shamed

Because it happened to me

Overpowering.

 

Weak for letting it happen.

Weak for leaving.

Pick your side.

Pick the line

Behind which the truth becomes trite.

 

When he was taken away

He felt trapped.

Overpowered.

For one day.

 

I am boxed behind the words still,

Behind the labels, shaming,

Behind the “nobody wants to hear what you are saying.”

 

It is a delicate thing

When the marks don’t show.

They often don’t.

 

Who am I when I don’t fit the roles?

I change my mind, die and regrow,

I do not know.

Laugh after the pain,

Smile wide after fear-

Pushing myself along.

 

I cannot define

An easy line of reasoning

Finding comfort with the grey in-betweens

Forming the sounds of a new vocabulary:

One that sounds like singing.

 


A Step Up From Down There

Long nights with short tempers.

Short drinks for long bills.

Cut skirts pour juiced fingertips,

eyes ablaze with acting and quick quips.

While men’s virtues light to visceral.

Dialogue through car horns

and conversations through headphones

while slopped-up scragglers sing

for pocket change and we’re all

pie-eyed rebuking what we became.

Another Dive, another burn.

A torch to light the low

and lick the blow

inhaling slowly as we roll.

No whites in their eyes.

This sleazy shamus,

waiting, biting his cheek

and using his teeth to sweat the lips

his tongue rotting in the center.

A step up from Down There.

Where filaments of fog separate

the smog from the smug

and my soot connects them all.

A step up from Down There.

Where there’s no real nothin’.

Just lingering booze on breath

while honesty is buried in filters of cigarettes

that paint the sidewalks like we used to do when we were kids.

But now we lie awake until the morning comes

and we begin round…whatever.

A small step up from Down There.

 


a toast to the roofs of my village

The old men in the old country

die with unannounced poison in their bones

cheeks turning red to black

far past rosy vodka friendliness

whispered slurs of slipping away

wrapped in the same white sheets they were born on

surrounded by ancient grandmother pillars of pillows

soon to be buried next to all previous generations

under neon-colored plastic flowers

and broken china cups of rain water to eternally sip

worn out weary legs bent under hay-making shoulders

rheumy watery eyes and lotion-less skin

big belly gut heaving from the lung stress

sitting splayed on the one one-person-sized mattress

thinking of his father

thinking of me

thinking of nothing

semi-encircled by the entire village family

throwing arms in the air clutching vodka swallows;

nothing much is different on this his last day.

 


The Cradle

He works slowly

across the cedar, swirling

a rag torn from a flannel shirt.

The grain pops

under the varnish. It is

a soothing movement of tide

lapping sandy banks

tumbling backward.

Once cured, the wood will shine

the soft sheen of a dog’s muzzle.

And when the baby child

is born, these planks

will gently cradle

its weight, rocking

with grandpa’s hand,

rocking to Morrisey, prolific

rhythm from the throat of spring,

it sings an extravagant tune

of growing something from nothing.

Now, the man’s hands creaked

wearily. Between the cutting,

sanding, and polishing,

his fingers had calloused

to the feel of moccasins,

a collection of amber hairs

 


Sedimentality  

Connection causes friction

Sanding ourselves smooth

Jagged bolder stones

I’m so annoyed with you

With youth

With all the things we lose

That loosen, shake off,

In crooked tones

In cavernous spaces shaped like homes

The specks and wrecks

The teeth and bones

 

Polish like that lingers

And deepens what we know

 

Push up against

And soften yes

And break a bit and circumvent

The space created, understated

Green shoot

In cracked pavement

 

Our saving grace to those without saviors

Behaviors reinvented, shaded,

It’s what Together made it,

Skin to skin you’ve started something

Contact connection

Clearer reflection

 

Accomplice with no master

Consociate detractor

Working spit into meaning

Careening through leading and leaving

Scraping away plaster

Connection’s effection

 

The loving and the leaving

The hate and the disease

All the doubt

Plays out

And hides and speaks

 

It is free

And purchasing

All it needs

 


hell mill

your face shakes

blood meal

from its pores

pours sweat milk

on the floor

in the form

of silky

spitting splotches

letting skin sting warm

wetting shins wring

and blotches cling

core crackles

a stunning attack

samples your ankles

calves hack

running out and back

into shackles

stout and slack

the belt’s dull pull

fills the pith

of your body

with knotty ramshackle

its slimy cackle

quelling

grating your gait

ever climbing

numbing your straight

path pulling

imbibing control

rolling and roaring

boring your sole

guttural gristly

unresisting gore

hell mill routine

machining more

 


The Commute

subtle steering wheel disaster

seventy-mile-an-hour-drives, a

twist motion to the left & I

could find an easy ride, down-the-dike,

where heartbroken & sophomoric souls reside,

gird yourself! for steel creeping up your leg, for

marsh & car & speed-collide, for the boggy black-out-to

white & in, to a quiet, quiet, quiet, hospital bed; but

put another hand on the wheel & dismiss it as a horrifyingly,

simple way to get out of work.

 


the Wild

corners provide cover –

this much I know

as I gaze in your direction

letting my eyes fix on your hair

for only a moment

 

your tresses follow behind you

like some trained pet

an exotic breed well manicured

although wild it nestles

 

and if I peer too long

the jaws might snap

swallow me whole

I would swim in your fury

 

feral bites to the neck

paired with kisses to your navel

coax each other tender pawing

until our breath

becomes one sigh

 

but this play remains a bone

buried in the backyard

and you are hidden

 


Judith

I feel a splinter of hair under my

Fingernail.

A gift from you, my General.

You cannot see me now, for I

Have done what you have done

And done, and done again a

Thousand-fold, feeding the dirt

Til it is red and

Ripe.

 

But, see, now I am the heroine.

I am immortalized in memory and

Print and passionate spittle.

I am in nearly every household,

Gold leaf, glory Hallelujah.

A page for you, my subordinate,

A book for me.

A spine is severed.

My dress is ruined.

 

 

I went through

y(our) home

and deleted myself,

erased my books,

sewing machine,

stray scraps of fabric.

I gathered my collection

of salt and pepper shakers,

the wine glasses from the rack,

my vinyl records.  I took

all my cook books and

hid everything

that was mine

in little cardboard coffins,

rented a storage space,

set up a mausoleum

of boxes, book shelves,

winter jackets.

I went through with

a fine tooth comb,

covered my tracks

with

all that precision

and attention to detail

that

made me an

unbearable wife.

 


 

Until You Marry It

When you pull the nose, the

Cheeks, the lips ─ the rest comes with.

Perhaps a white sheet, perhaps a

Paragraph. Eight point. Hieroglyph.

A padlock now pried. And peeks

At word peaks. I’ve tried, I was one

To excavate and sigh on

The vacancy. I have done it, have

Hung my white flag. Fruitless

To ‘what if.’

 

No more. No, I lift it with intention

To lick the last pulp plate dry.

Mouth black, eyes swung back

In absorptive pollination.

It is a commitment, a vow

To bow before a seeming stack of

Syllable trash. And a contract

Sealed with neurons to last, to last.

A laugh. I needn’t be so shy. It

Parts so willingly.

 

You find it dull. You find it’s skeletal

Sentences dripped with drool.

But leafing turns to biting. Turns to

Gnawing, rolling rapports round your

Jaw. A ravenous clang of page after

Page between fang. How wondrous ─

The simplicity in adopting the maw.

The blank screen graced with place

And face, all framed

In hazy milk.

 

It is the transmutation of it, from

Soporific to sermon. A foot of dust

On the bible ─ these ones bear

A far more spiritual shock. You view it as

Chore, until your spine snaps at the

Spin of it. Until you swallow it. The angle

Alters, trot to rocketing, and the

Climax is your climax.

Huffing, wet, wallowing in the mess.

Commas and capitals. Lap laden

With the win of it.

 

It is in every tome, a seed of

Sinew. It is a mirror.

Its peels stink of your fingers

In the end. And your veins have

More than ventured, curling about

That of a vapor. You tremble, you

Can barely sit. Trauma-dropped,

It is cooing at your feet. Refusing

To blend. You think a

Book is bad until you marry it.

 

Until you’ve carried it over the

Threshold. Wood. Or plastic.

Or pile. A heap, a heap, be it

Costly or cheap. Until you bury

It. Not at the midriff, but at the zenith,

Where it banters on and on

By telegraph. You welcome it

In that anechoic grotto. It is so

Bad, until, sub-hair aware, you

Triumph in the fail to parry it.

 


 

Torn

“Do you want to                          “wake Up!

Kiss me deeply,                     before you go.

On the throat and neck,                     like so long ago,

Do you want to                                               leave me,

Love me deeply                                              like so many

Inside skin,                                          have done before.

Deep inside,                                        you are soulless,

Far from outside;                                you are heartless,

I won’t judge you,                              as a man.

I won’t make you work,                                 as a woman,

There won’t be any God,                    to judge you there is

No truth;                                             nothing left to virtue,

You don’t have to                               remain underneath,

Love me,                                             the female is squashed.

You don’t have to                               please me, you will not

Miss me,                                              surrender your ego,

Just please me,                                    do not look to worldly matters,

When we are inside,                            i need you to wake up,

And I need your cooperation,             i need you to be alive,

To make this a good moment;             if you hurt me.

 

The sky is colder when it is grey.                                it looks like it will rain today.

 

These sort of things matter                                         if I decide to go to work early,

When simple decisions are prolonged.                        i will get rained on for sure.

I sit stiffly.                                                                  in my pajamas,

Some curl in fetal position,                                         i masturbate,

In thinning reality.                                                      while my lover is sleeping.

The simple decisions                                       to eat, to take a shit,

To make a cup of coffee,                                            to brush my teeth,

To eat, to fix my hair,                                     to shave my legs,

To bathe, to turn on the tv,                                         watch the morning news,

Hang in time.                                                  disturb his absence,

Simple decisions become serious.                               my decisions are taken literal.

The coffee pot is burned.                                            so what?

I am getting dizzy spells.                                            so fucking what?

My panties are soiled.                                     life does not wait for him to dress.

Acne is dotting my skin.                                             life does not wait for him to wake.

With one fingernail I scrape grime                              into a delirious state of fantasy.

Off of my forearm.                                                     i feel a kink in my elbow.

The television is fuzzing.                                            the weight of love is hurting me.

A pet is rotting in its cage.                                          a mind is rotting in a dream.

 

Outside____sky____still____.                                   _______the___grey.

I am colder      when it is grey.

I still remember the weather,

I can relate.

 

Yesterday and tomorrow,                             fifteen minutes late,

Sandwiched in between.                                              two fat men,

Entertained with zooming cars,                                          face smashed against window.

Reasoned by culture,                                               town clock makes sense.

Celebrating time,                                               trust it will be honest.

In days off society,                                               work in overtime,

Spend using atm cards.                                                     in the midnight hour of holidays,

No birthday.                                                                  celebrate money.

No home.                                                            give away plenty

 

No name.                                                                                                        i buy a title

 

You have no power over me.                                                  i could always use another one.

I have no morals.                                                        the rain will wipe away my tears.               Innocent am I in a murder trial,                                                          glass pane blocks sympathy

Innocent am I in a promise.                                      i will reason my way out of this.           I will Stay here inside where I am free                                       i will work fifteen minutes overtime

Until you ask what have I been up to.                     then I will ask for a raise,

And I say nothing at all, because I am dependent

And I become late for an appointment                 on your decisions

I never set.             your limitations,

You wipe the pizza sauce off my lip,               paint face,

Brush my hair,              shave glutton off waist,

Iron my clothes,                   clip wings,

Put my phone back on the hook,                    answer phone,

Pay my rent,                                mow lawn,

Mow my lawn.

But I will still be here

When the sky isn’t grey.

And I will still be cold

Because I remember the weather.

I remember what it is like out there.”

 


 

Negaunee

I’ll never forget Negaunee,
squatting, staring over
Superior water’s cold,
windswept waves.

One wondrous ripple rolls close
whispering, “I’ll never understand her”
and throws itself upon the stony shore.

I watch the tiny beads shatter and squirm back
towards the great cold lake, and I have nothing to say.

Another is thrust up, quickly proclaiming
“I! I am to blame!” and breaking in dissolution
polishes damp stone.

I poke between pebbles,
“Surely, not you, dear ripple.
Surely not you.”