Once it was fur hats men on horseback swords and torches our villages casting a faint glow falling into dying embers, here, one whose skull bears the mark of the hoof, there an old one who would go no farther.
Once it was a helmet tanks for horses flames contained in crematoria cities taken for the deserving we, merely ashes shoveled into a pit, here a tooth, its gold torn free and cataloged first the old ones who could go no farther.
And so we have learned, we in our kippot we in our planes and if you do not hear we will give you the holy fires of God you and your villages a faint shadow and so much vapor, so much ash carried on his holy breath for we have learned well and we have fused these words in our minds, never again.
First published in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008)
The path meandered more than he remembered but he was the first to admit his memory was never his strongest suit. It didn’t help that he had consumed two margaritas at lunch, and even he didn’t believe the excuse that this was a slow day for him, still sober at two in the afternoon. But he wandered the path, for that is what paths were there for he was certain. He had no idea where he was going, and realized that he would have no idea when he got there. Still he had great faith in mathematics, that was his training, his brilliance,such as it was, and he knew that if he merely wandered aimlessly without thinking, he would eventually cross his own path, bump into his former self and they, together, could devise a plan to find their way precisely they were intended to be.
We are, he is convinced, devolving into verbal neanderthals, losing are ability to recognize the linguistic tools that once set us apart from other species, or at least so we assured ourselves. She knows that what truly sets us apart from other species is the arcane skill we have at being able to convince ourselves that delusion, firmly held, is fact. Still, she cannot disagree with him, simplicity is a too close cousin to inanity, and nuance is the first relative to be cast out. And so with ever fewer words, we seem to have ever more to say, and speaking endlessly, say ever less.
It is almost midnight. If this was Seoul, the Hilton, I could walk down the hill to Namdaeman Market and wander around the shops the smell of the city, of pigs heads simmering in giant caldrons, fish lying on beds of melting ice and look at silk and stainless flatware, watches and celendon casting its faint green glow in the fluorescent night, but it is Virginia and there is only a 7-Eleven four miles down the road where I can pick up a Diet Pepsi and Hostess Blueberry pie and stand at the counter where the County Sheriff stands talking to the owner while browsing the Penthouse magazine kept behind the counter for long spring nights when there is little traffic along route 7.
It’s jazz, it’s a club, but there what once was is no more, there are no ashtrays on the table, overflowing early into the second set, no cloud of cigarette smoke descending from the too dark ceiling. There is no recognizable odor of a freshly lit Gaulloise, in the trembling fingers of a young man trying to look cool, trying not to cough on each inhalation, in the calm fingers of a young woman who you know speaks the fluent French of her homeland. It is none of those things but it is jazz, it is a club and in this city, now, it must suffice.
The pelican hasn’t been around for a couple of days, and we miss his akimbo dives into the pond, surfacing and throwing his head back to show he’s swallowing his catch even though we suspect some of the time he caught nothing at all, but knowing we’re as gullible an audience as he is likely to find any time soon. We hope he is off breeding somewhere, making little pelicans that will be able to entertain us next fall when we return, birds of our own sort, not snowy egrets but snow birds nonetheless. We don’t want to know any more about the mating ritual, some things ought to be private. We learned that painful a few years ago, when my brother thought it was important we see thoroughbreds bred. We prefer our breedings like good French films, suggestive but ultimately leaving it to our memory, like so much of our youth.
It would be an anathema to him if he were a Pope or held deeply felt opinions about anything, but he does not. He denies being vacillating, rather, he says, he is just open to a multitude of views, never mind, she replies, that he can never make any important decision except by mere chance or luck. He says he prefers life this way, for he is disinclined to alienate anyone. She says his unwillingness to take and hold a position has alienated her, and she points out that he has no friends and few who would call him a true acquaintance. He debates arguing with her, but he knows she is possibly right and arguing would do nothing, and so she walks away and he can only imagine what might have been.
We set out with bold ambition, egos saddled and reined across a landscape left barren by our leaders who saw only carefully stacked boards and beams awaiting the master carpenter, great floral sprays dotting the lobbies of glass and chrome edifices, created in their own images. We ride in search of the promised land, and turn a deaf ear to the windwalkers, to the spirits of the children sitting in the packed dirt streets their bellies distended, crying out for food, for justice as the warlords sit in their cars surveying the invisible parapets of their armed fortresses. We look quickly away from the chindi of the young men who rise from the neatly heaped soil of the common burial mound, who rise up in neat array and perch on the edge of the freshly dug pit waiting for the rat-a-tat rain of death they know await them unrepentant, unwilling to curse Allah, bidding farewell to Tuzla. We pause to chant the blessing way but we have forgotten the words, Arbeit Macht Frei, the gates reduced to rust, the chimneys no longer belching the sweet smell of death into the winter morning. We ride on oblivious to the faint glow from the craters we have torn into the earth, of the clouds that only vaguely recall the mushrooms of our progress. We ride toward the horizon where the great pillars of gold and silver rise up, glinting in the sun that once warmed them before we cast them out into the desert of our lust and craving. We set out with bold ambition but our horses have grown tired, our canteens are empty and the inferno threatens to consume us.
First Appeared in Alchemy, Issue 2, Fall-Winter 1999.