Better Than Both, He Who Never Saw the Sun

It’s been three weeks since Cohen last left the studio. She’s been too busy, and there’s a chemical shower in the corner, and a sub shop that delivers round the clock, and someone left a cot here ages ago, so. She sleeps on decades of sweat from others too busy to leave, maybe, but who cares?

They took her leg when she was fourteen, dead rotting meat. She screamed when they touched raw flesh: she remembers their eyes, all whites behind red lenses, the long edge of their beaks, the ineradicable reek of burning oil. They let her live, that full of scruples.

This her latest is a self-portrait in plaster, a dragon’s nest of left legs hatched from the egg of her hip. She is smeared white with the making. When it is done — done enough, good enough, close enough — she stretches, yawns, longs for fresh air.

They are waiting for her outside, samaritans, eyes red and blank with the setting sun, beaks sharp with borrowed time. They let her live, that full of scruples.

Hamilton

The screams rise up every evening at sunset, echoing and harmonizing off the blunt-fingered towers of Hamilton. Cedar submerges herself in them at first, then stops her ears with wax, then suffers through them, then ignores them. Days she loiters by the river, ducking back into the reeds when the children come down to the water, arms and legs frogskinned and scarred. Hidden, she listens to the rusty creak of their voices, words broken in half against shattered teeth, and wonders what they say. Hamilton speaks an interior tongue not shared with outsiders.

She trades burbots for a night’s rent, pulled gasping and fighting from the oily green ooze of the river, trades them still barbed on her hooks to her landlord. His fingers twitch and caress the metal, tease it out from their mouths. He throws the fish back to be caught, pierced, and ransomed another day.

She rises early, before the sun, to get to the river and away from the women who throng the streets at dawn, breaking their nails off bloody against streetlights, fenceposts, closed doors. They come into her room while she’s gone, men and women both, and burn themselves on her stove, stab themselves with her pens, bite hunks out of her soap. When she returns, dogged by the evening, they have set things to rights, the only testimony scars on the door and teethmarks deep in her soap.

For the Director of Music

And again—

There was evening and there was morning: the first day. Cold, killing cold, milk hauled in blocks a foot wide. On the wide circle of the lake, one bony-hipped cow patiently licking at the ice. No birds fly in this killing air. In the lake, beneath that patient, callused, fruitless tongue a face emerges; then another; and a third. One is hungry, one is angry, one is red with blood.

Evening, and endless evening, and morning: the seventh day. A mile deep in the ice, and still going. Column of flesh, frozen hands welded to straining thighs, backs bent beneath the weight. Patient and mindless, the work continues. Ever lower.

Evening and morning: the seven times seventieth day. Ice and more ice. Deep within still bodies, something stirs at the freshening air, something protected, still vital, and caged.

Selah.

Held to High Standard

In the thick of the fighting all that long summer: a leather-lunged voice raised in stern dispute, and a pen worn down to the rachis with writing, Pythia of Mericourt is hounded on all sides, by those who love her as much as those who hate her. “Whore of the people,” they call her. “Every son’s mother.” She rattles her saber against her thigh, and keeps her guns loaded and lashed against her side.

In the long march to the palace, she is there at the front, high and mighty and furious on a horse, whipping them on, a voice crying out for justice. She has herded cattle and sheep; revolutionaries are no harder.

There is a moment — just one, not long — when they break down the doors, where she feels the world shudder and tilt toward change. For that heady second, all seems possible, everything become thinkable.

Alas, no: the world is vast and the groove of history is deep. Twenty years later they have locked her away, “for her own good,” and she bears them prophesy; witness of another world, where the women she led were armed and unbroken, where the banner of empire was never sewn from the skin of revolution.

It’s A Lost Life Not Lived As You Wish

with apologies to George Cosbuc

The war has come to the city of delicate spires. Shells have fallen among the ancient libraries, shattered the marmoreal dignity of the Street of Statues; blood has stained the drought-stricken grasses of the city parks. The Ladies have put down their crystal cups and taken up arms—the muzzles of their guns peep between every wrought-iron railing, and each carries a knife of glass hidden in her sleeve. This is their city; have they not died for centuries in its construction?

Who to trust, though, when every returning soldier is a métoikos? Sign and countersign are useless here. The Gentlemen wear themselves out in rooms choked with tobacco smoke, blunt their canny fingers against enigmatic keyboards, but to no end. They are two tribes now; one that stayed, and one that went. Their grandchildren speak a foreign tongue.

They are pushed back, and pushed back, until at last all they hold is an airfield, and a city brutal with smoke, colonized with flames. They, ladies and gentlemen both, load one final plane, and fly north until the fuel runs out. The earth arcs up toward their windows, gravid with new beginnings, riddled with history.