To their bones it must seem like strange wind.
He’s listened with them for three years now.
The only effect it’s had is that when the songs cut off
he hears a ringing rather than their murmur.
It’s that much less rebuke. He thought it would
move through the herd more like when he drives
among them a few bars faster than he should,
headlights like wet blotter shining on their hides.
Only in the low and whirl of such privacy
does he watch his hands become two thick pistols
giving back to heaven its little bolts of thanks.
Walking through the pasture, the fact that
he knows people who claim to see loved ones’
eyes stare back continues to confuse him.
He stares and sees the colors of the uniforms
it was, in a past he did not disclose on his application,
too often his duty to make clean. He stares and sees
the shale of rainclouds, or smoke rising from some
far grass patch whose location is vague but no less
difficult for him to believe in beyond the rudiments
of its burning. He stares and sees the illiterate
that for three years now he has dreamed of,
sees the color of his tongue as he receives his death
papers, papers he understands immediately
even though he cannot read, because they are a king’s
words, meaning they have been delivered
sealed in a gaudy, wine-dark wax, meaning they are
already everywhere, meaning you can burn them,
you can burn the paper or the vellum or whatever
they arrived on, you can burn that iota of
the kingdom and still its words will go on ringing.
Each night for three years now he has dreamed
of the illiterate doomed by the king’s pleasure.
Each morning for three years now he has woken
to flanks of stale cornbread, these farting cows,
and this music that he loves. This love, he caws,
slapping the closest one, seeing how well
this, the latest, most-benign form of hardness
he has tried on works. After three years
of appraising it, he knows it never will. Three years.
Bleak to bleak to bleak. Bone to bone to bone.
He believes his kingdom will never deliver
him from these cows. Their days together
comprise layers of gray, wet grass and his high
mockeries. As loudly as he can make it
go, syllable after syllable, the word re-
spect tattoos the air as though the air were an eager
wall of flesh. Call it pleasure. In the flesh of the ear
this breath that lingers even as it vanishes.
Copyright © 2020 Charlie Clark
Used with the permission of Four Way Books.