From the hill’s crown we can see the weather,
the black-gray bands of thick clouds
gathering like sheep thinned out with a razor.
We’re tired and want to sleep, but we’re urged
to keep moving. The distant city
is where our guide is taking us. Heat-soaked
afternoon all around us, sparrows cutting
their grooves in and out of the red cedar
canopy we now pass under. Like in a dream
we squint and try to focus our eyes
upon the looming gridlock of leaves.
We are in the dark now. Hand in hand,
we panic and stumble along like shadows
flickering in a sun-forsaken land.
A muddy street, trees hung low with rain,
tamped meadows all around us, we slop into town
and notice the beat-upon gables, the roofs
raked from cornice to eave. Littered all around
us are the badly broken bodies of birds
big and small. On the sill of a window, the silhouette
of a small cat licks its paw, then brushes
its lip, then licks again. In an ice-filled-gully crickets
wobble on shaky shoots and work up the momentum
in their legs for a song or two. “Soon you’ll eat,”
says our guide, “and be safe.” “Draw no attention
to yourself,” he says. “Blend in and batten down.”
Dusk. Fireflies work hope in their tails.
It had rained before us. It would rain again.
We walk around with our families in tow. The guards advise us
not to ignore the signs: DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS
and SMOKING PROHIBITED. We see tables
crowded with summer fruit and vegetables.
We watch the hands inspect the recently plucked
for nicks and cuts, bumps and bruises,
that might speak to what goes on below the hardened skin
of the pumpkin, the tender armor of the Brussels.
We all want the answer to the same question:
what does the dark taste like around the peach’s knobby heart,
along the zucchini’s seeded-spine? We all want to sample, to taste
the secret squares of summer corn, but no one is willing to pay.
Not my brothers and sisters, not even my mother and father.
No one wants to trade something for something anymore.
To our left are crowded all of the animals who’ve been chosen
because they are the youngest and therefore the most tender,
or because they are the fattest and can offer the most
to the growling stomachs, the restless tongues.
A goat kicks someone. The guards babble
about their children, their mistresses in the country,
how they like to make them shine their boots
with their coarse midnight hair they will only unbraid
and let fall to their hips before taking to bed. A goat
kicks and is kicked back. Two men, fourteen and sixteen,
run from the thrum-tailed bodies of a honeycomb
they have stoned to the ground because it swayed
like a golden knuckle from a hanging tree
and resembled the sun we had not seen for days.
We gather for breakfast at a table that seats four.
Today we are missing two. Frankie and Johnny
Orowitz never joined us to greet the morning
with prayer and food. Last night, we heard the baying
outside, German shepherds and Dobermans,
and saw the faint flicker of lamps tearing
the dark acres of oak and spruce. Hours later,
in an old tree no more than twelve feet high, joking
guards found them hanging upside down
like corkscrew-necked owls who, although spent,
dreamt they could keep turning. Left in their gowns,
poor Frankie and Johnny now wander in their sleep
down the deserted damp-cold avenues
where the horse-stones are golden and everything is for sale.
In the alley an old grandmother is beaten. My sister tells me
how an old woman, taller and more severe of expression
than the one under siege now, once showed her how to feed
the belly of a fire. Upon arriving, we are taught a lesson:
food is for consumption and not art, science or play.
Yet someone took the risk to show my sister how
to drop food into a fire: one spoonful for protection,
two for health. He strikes her with the heel of his boot now.
A cabbage and milk broth runs into the street’s uneven grooves
and already I can see them, hear them even, marching
in their single line, clothed in their red ant regalia, from the guts
of an altar where they have been working. He bludgeons
her and then she learns to eat his whip and for a moment
the cool morning shines once more with all of its old brilliance.
Dressed in gray, a network of angels guards night and day
the gates to the city. We say there is no God and laugh;
we say pity the poor angels, lonely, the sick ones who prey
on mites from their bellies before their baths
in the dusty light. They are really not so hard to pity
when you see one weeping after digging a knee in our backs
or biting our hands with rope for the sins of our needy
fathers and mothers. We pity them because they can’t
brush their teeth or wear shoes, because they can’t escape
their desire to collect our shoestrings and belts, our forks and spoons,
the laundry we bring with us, the unused keys and change
in our pockets, our healthy teeth that will fall out in time.
We pity them the roughshod nest they build out of what we lose
because it will never be finished so long as we are alive.
“DEAD CROSSING, DEAD CROSSING,” they shout
this from the sidewalks and the street corners. Black boots
rise and fall in the morning air. Four young men shoulder
the weight of the armless sack our neighbor wears.
He was a few hours away from his next meal, but he got greedy
and stole from the kitchen when no one was looking.
Everyone is always looking. Now he sleeps the sleep
of no dreams and we count him lucky. Lucky
is what we say and then we celebrate, my family and I,
by skinning apples. We take one at a time and quarter
them, tossing seeds and cores to the swine.
They too should feel lucky and celebrate because today
our exhausted masters have made certain
there is room enough for one more of us in the world.