Letters Back Home.
I have crossed the roads twisting like sheep guts
in the foothills above the shores of the far valley.
This land is less wild than I would have suspected:
an expedition has set up a camp of stakes, posts, and huts
along a brook that strings together a bevy of beaver ponds;
who these men are I cannot tell, colonists or fur trappers maybe,
which says something about their secretive ways,
but I have moved on, holding fast to our undertaking,
into woods and lowlands where the ground is marshy,
where elk, probing the wetlands for grub to graze,
leave tracks of waterlogged hoofprints awash with tadpoles.
Mother, why is everything so heartbreaking?
Ribbon snakes gorge themselves on the darting tadpoles,
and goshawks carry away the snakes wilted in their talons.
You told me once when something was made to move
it was made lengthwise like horses or roads or shadows,
and when something was supposed to stay put
it was made up-and-down like a man or his growing sons.
On official roads I see how the capital fills you with scorn,
where restless men on horseback spit in passing doorways
and make others fidgety and itching to get up and go,
when we should stay put like a tree or a stand of corn.
We would crawl on our bellies like a ribbon snake
if God intended us to be always moving and parting ways.
I have seen my childhood hero skulk in the dark,
consumed by his starlit reflection in a fountain's sputtering
kneeling and praying for another chance to leave his mark,
which would mean leading me into my own slaughter,
since it is dumb idiots like us who supply the capital
with barrels of buckwheat and barley and bodies for bright battles.
To find him alone, without the usual fanfare, is pitiful.
The fountain gargles like a thousand death rattles.
I do not want a fate that turns the sound of water into death ...
Soon a clanging of bells draws him into the citadel,
and I, still so awestruck that I can scarce draw breath,
decide to follow him beyond the gates and up a stairwell
that opens onto a pink courtyard with a garden
where couriers, advisers, and boys on tiptoes are waiting.
Father, do you still desire to know how royal affairs are run?
At first I thought the knowledge would be liberating,
but we turn swiftly into a damp, torch-lit inner chamber
leading to another staircase that climbs to an outer palace,
lined with new gardens whose flower names I can't remember,
and I feel if we ceased this climbing something would catch us,
but it goes on like this for hundreds of years.
People here forever strain upward like plant life in sunshine,
and I watch them rush to the waters edge when a tall ship appears.
After such homecomings, banners and strange fruit litter the shoreline.
I have knelt among soldiers strapped up in moth-eaten
armor to pray in a parish converted to thresh and store grain.
The war effort is fickle, swapping shapes faster than the old gods,
as liable to change source and direction as a weather vane,
but the parish is quiet enough to hear a lip's murmur,
the threshing of wheat ceased by the necessity of prayer.
Broken-backed, nutrient-starved, and yellow-cheeked,
we kneel in pews awash in predawn light and recite our lauds.
It is not long until the capital has already peaked
with the roar and rabble of commerce in the town square
where vendors hawk their scalped melons jeweled with flies.
The capital, always moving with the feverish pace that is its hallmark,
has posted army recruiters at the bridges and crossroads
where they like to frisk me because they think I'm out of work.
Brother, the bridges are named after people in lullabies,
those legends from childhood that linger in a place-name,
but the heroes and soldiers here drift like the drifting water,
their hearts a covered-up stone where the moss grows.
I study them, like a keen naturalist, as thoughts turn to wander
in a prayer whose commitment starts to strain:
after having scoured the churchyard choked by wild sedge
I uncovered your name in stone too heavy to take flight.
Brother, do you think the capital will name a bridge after you?
My rosy fingers, braided by prayer, knuckle into white,
as I pray to be again a serene witness at the world's edge.