1. First I smelled it, hovering near the bed: distinctly saline, as in a ship's wake; a bit of dust and mold, like moth-found fur; also something grassy, crushed herb, sharper. After that, when they turned the ward lights out, the space-ship glowing at the nurses' hub, his pod stilled and darkened, only the small digitals updating on the screen, then I could see--one "sees" in deep gloaming, though ground-fog makes an airless, formless room-- how fully it loomed behind and larger than the steel stalk, the sweet translucent fruit. One doesn't notice wings when they're at rest. One doesn't notice the scythe of the beak at rest: opaque, like horn, or bone, knobbed at the base but tapering, proportionate to the head. In Quattrocento paintings, Mary's face is mirrored by the messenger's radiant face: that's meant to comfort--see, they're just like us. No, they're not like us. This had no face, and its posture was a suspect courtesy, stolen from a courtier who nods to the aging king, head bowed, and holds aside, lowered, but unsheathed, the sword. 2. Except in wired emergencies, the signals sounding for a pressure drop but not a fever spike, a bad white count, blood transfused too fast, a tube dislodged, sudden struggle to breathe, the opiates late again, always late--it was my task to harry the Duty-Nurse, Charge-Nurse, Intern, Attending, to put in the rut of their path implacable me-- the workers came and went without alarm and thus I could not trust them-- they must think it part of the common furniture that clutters cardio-thoracic post-surgical wards, but I think not: I think your father's code was branded somewhere on its bony leg, 631688, the same sign stamped on the band clamped to the swollen wrist, markers for an arduous migration. I think it was used to hunger. I think it was waiting for me to leave the room. 3. 01-21-05. 0400. Before the workers came for vital signs, half-way through the IV bag's collapse, the cuff tightening on his good right arm, a little purr, a read-out click on the wall, then a hush, no anguish from his or other pods, I think it moved. At least I can say I heard a faint new noise: as if a great blue heron, not nesting but next to the nest, an eye on the nest, still as a stalk beside the water's edge, resting on one leg, had stirred. 4. That all this happened far away from you; that the verb "think" is stupid and unworthy; that when all this began, the world went away; that what we thought the world was, was a dream; that you, the hub of that world, belong to the dream; that you, remembered, now must be imagined; that imagining is how we think we choose; that the verb "choose" is stupid and unworthy; that need, unspeakable need, is what imagines while joy or grief, rage or terror dreams; that there is no world except the worlds we dream; that while I imagine you you're dreaming us; that in the dream you dream your father rises. 5. Birds migrate in flocks, there was no flock. When we moved out, into the strange city, and I became the lone worker-bee, my queen--your father--fixed in the high bed, above his heart the violent slash, cross-hatched, above his heart tattoos for the next aggression, above his heart a major vein now missing, the oxygen-machine a lullaby, shush-shush, the multiple colorful pills piled in labeled boxes, our calendar and clock-- it didn't go back, legs dangling down like commas, without the soul it might have carried like lice below a wing, kept warm beneath its feathers: it followed us there, and stood in the rented yard behind the live-oaks and the oleander-- I saw it once, I'd learned where I should look. And when, that season ended, we came home, it came too. From the kitchen window, west, down the sledding hill to the berry-bramble, you'd see where: in early dark, camouflaged among the gaunt gray alders along the brook, still as a stalk beside the water's edge-- of course it's there. It winters over.
ELLEN BRYANT VOIGT has published six volumes of poetry, including Kyrie (1995), a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award, and Shadow of Heaven (2002), a finalist for the National Book Award, as well as a collection of essays on craft (The Flexible Lyric). "Messenger" is the title poem of her New and Selected, which is scheduled for publication by W. W. Norton in January 2007. She lives in Vermont.
photograph by Nancy Crampton