today. He’s cleared the court, torn up
the last treaty, trounced the villages
bordering the empire’s southernmost
state, rounded up their dark denizens
and given the hundred skinniest to split
among his governors. I wore shackles
once on a boat across the largest ocean
in the universe, but I was the last among
my captive people to forget how to laugh
and the first to remember our tribal names.
In that time, I learned the whipman’s slang,
for when the noble children came to gawk,
I’d listen to them, mimic, until I could
speak back, ask questions, chat them up
for fairy tales, prayers, ridicule, and lies.
Dumb luck, one runt traded me a book
for my right thumb through the bars
of my cage. In no time, I learned to read
all the secrets of their God. Then,
Minor Governor caught me making
a small group of children dance
to my crafted blasphemies, damning us all.
He had me dragged before the King.
His Majesty asked me why I believed
I’d been brought before him, so I called to mind
a passage I memorized from their holy book
about a pale man’s rib and sang it in the melody
with which my mother used to bid farewell
to summer every year. The King sneered first,
then held his big belly and laughed. Take him
away. Take him—away. I thought, for sure,
it was my death, but it’s been 11 years
and the King no longer goes to church
on Sundays, he beckons me to court instead
to make him laugh and sometimes weep.
He calls me Nearer, my pumpkin, nearer
then caresses my cheek. Some afternoons
I’m cuddled so close to him I’m sure I could
slip from his fat knuckle one of his big bright
ruby rings. He kisses me from my right elbow
down to each of my four fingers’ tips. I tell him
how his darling left hand is so chubby sweet
and I vow, one day, to take the whole
goddamned thing in his sleep.
Copyright © Persea Books 2016
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.