from Thaliad, part IV
In this portion of the blank verse narrative,
a post-apocalyptic poem in fifteen parts,
a group of children are traveling on their own—
this is one incident on their journey.
Beyond the blasting fire, all roads are long;
The children wearied of the way before
The path was hours old, complained or yelled,
And, taking turns, pushed north across state lines.
Some slept and woke to see the landscape changed
From mountains into hills and farmers’ fields,
Though seldom did they see a sign of life
Except for deer and red-tailed hawks and birds—
One time a bellowing blockade of cows
Scared the children into shouts or silence,
As was the nature of each one, but Ran
Declared the herd was crying to be milked:
We will need milk, said Thalia, so sniff
And find the path to where we’re going, cows!
At that remark, the weeping Gabriel
Let out a snort, hiccuped, and laughed outloud:
See those long rows of green, he said to her,
And then those wavy hills? One day I walked
Up there with my father. I’m sure it was
The place. It could have been… It looks the same.
We found a sourwood tree that had been killed
By something, but the leaves still drooped in place,
Though every one had faded into brown.
When we came closer, leaves burst into wings—
The tree was green, the death was butterflies,
Alive and pouring like a waterfall
But upside-down from us. His gentle voice
Lingered in her ear, but when she answered,
He had begun to cry and did not hear.
Be-spelled by dust, a seeming-endless track
Unreeled before the van, and soot was snow
That fell from blackened wings of butterflies.
Two boys once sprinted from a wood and chased
The car to hurl chunks of concrete and stones
At frightened faces pressed against the glass—
Sophrasia, driving, jammed the pedal down.
Stone-kissed, a window blossomed spiderwebs.
They hated us! Did you see they were burned?
What did they want with us? What would they do
To us? Don’t trust—don’t stop—don’t listen—don’t!
They might have killed us or done something worse…
What’s worse? I don’t know but there might be worse.
There’s things teenagers know that we don’t know.
But I know everything, there’s nothing worse.
And so do I, and I say there is worse.
What’s worse? Who says what’s worse? What is the worst?
Who cares? Let’s always run and not find out.
We ought to have—we ought to have a gun.
You never shot a gun! You’d shoot yourself.
I never would! What I say is just this:
No trusting anybody over twelve.
No trusting anybody. No. No trust.
I wish we didn’t have to stop again.
It’s time to look for gas, it’s almost time.
I want my mother and my father back…
I want them back, I want, I want them back.
And suddenly it seemed adventure was
An overrated thing, and dread humped high
And firm as stone outcroppings on the hills.
I wish that nothing ever happened to me,
Gabriel whispered to the spider’s web
That broke the passing picture of the land,
I wish, I wish, I wish that nothing came
Trampling across the sky to me. To me!
The seven tilting with the world were young,
Remember that—had lived impossibly
Plush lives as in the shining magazines
That linger here and there, with shots of cars
In colors we no longer see on Earth,
Women shrunk and twisted into poses
Impossible to hold yet beautiful,
Painted pouting, more like fairy glamour
Than anything that labors, eats, and dies,
With houses where the rooms are warm and shine
No matter how it snows, or how the ice
Collects in ropes along the crooked eaves:
The world was one way, then it changed, it changed.
The children squabbled over who would drive
Until nobody wanted any more
To pilot or to ride, and half were sick,
Their soda cans and candy wrappers strewn
Across the floor where Gabriel was tucked
In a fetal curl and weeping steadily.
The world grew dusky, noiseless, and the birds
Dying in flight came pelting from the sky
And all the land was hushed, and Gabriel
Seemed long and loud though weeping quietly,
And so the children kicked their legs at him
And shouted for him to shut up, shut up,
Yet Gabriel kept on with low-toned sobs
As if he meant to hurt no peace of mind
But weep until he’d washed the bitter shard
Of grief from out its mortal housing—heart
That could not change with change, nor summon up
A different rhythm for a different day.
They reached a river’s giant flood, a bridge—
One bridge among the many, highway spans
And one black trestle that meant trains once crossed
Though everything was silent as in dreams
Except the children shrieked for Gabriel
To be a mute, a stone, a block, a tree
Or anything that had no voice to speak.
Let’s put him down! Let’s shove him out and leave!
Yes! Yes! Yes! I can’t stand him
Another moment more, this terrible
Crybaby noise. Who couldn’t cry—I will
If he does not shut up! Let’s put him down!
The van was spraddled sideways in the road,
And children tumbled from the sliding doors,
Accompanied by gay confetti bits
Of bags and wrappers and by tinny sounds
From cans that bounced and reeled across the road.
They dragged him from his lair beside a seat,
They shouted at him that he’d learn a thing
Or two, to not be so unendingly
Unbearable, to weep as all could weep
But did not do. He’d learn a lesson, two
Or three or more; he could cry as he liked
And let nobody hear or care a whit,
Cry to the wilderness of trees and ash
And let the earless creak and saw response.
He huddled on the pavement, sunk in tears,
And only jumped up, pleading at the glass
When laughing faces looked from high on him.
I’d like to say that they relented then,
Embraced the boy and let him in to stay,
One cruel lesson roughly taught and learned:
Events went otherwise. They drove away.
They drove away! And left that little boy
Alone with bridges, river, blowing ash:
Immensity. He was eleven, a child
Beloved and seldom left alone in rooms.
The landscape must have wallowed round his head,
Wavering, frightful-strange, making its threats
In symbol-language of a mighty sky
That promised death, destruction, endless fire,
And symbol-language of the puissant stream
That had been thicked and porridged by the ash
Yet shoved on journeying to who knows where—
To the sea! A place where he had been with pail
And shovel, scooping castles from the sand,
Or floated on the spume, his father near,
Or walked the water’s edge to see the life
That bubbled out of holes after a wave.
Perhaps he also thought of one great crash
That grasped and muscled him beneath the sea,
The briney drink corrosive to his throat.
Current’s undertow, the helpless jostling
Said he was nothing cherished by the sea—
Perhaps recalled the slide of foreign flesh
Against his thigh, the fright of feeling death
Move coldly by (the temperature of waves
No colder) and the waves not frolicsome
As waves could seem when shattered into foam
Around his toes, though sucking toward the drain
As water dragged and undermined his feet.
A mile beyond the bridge-end, Thalia
Shrieked order into riot, sued for peace,
Commanded that they turn for Gabriel.
They laughed and mocked but soon agreed and vowed
They’d meant to do no more than stop his tears,
No more than plug the noise, the endless noise,
The wretched soundtrack to a trip that none
Would ever ask for, never dream to wish,
And so they spun the wheel and headed South—
The bridge hove into view, as broad and long
As it had been before: Not here, not here,
A little farther, no, I think we’ve passed
The spot. Look there, I spy his purple shirt.
Three times they drove the distance of the bridge,
But nothing did they see, nothing at all
Of Gabriel the weeper, vanished, gone
As if a messenger had flown to Earth
And snatched him up to ashless paradise.
I pray that it was so! The children paused
And peered in murky waters where some saw
A smudge of purple, flash of hand, but no
One could agree another’s sight was true;
They wandered, calling aimlessly his name
But lowering clouds ate up the echoed word,
And children soon will tire of any game.
They drove away again. The silence begged
Its questions. Children foraged, slept and woke
To meet another ashen day. At times
A question begged for silence. Children leave
The past behind and change, but silence stays
As road to inwardness, and questions beg.
All day they did what needed to be done,
Though silence looked in on them now and then,
And after hours of hush and lassitude,
Often one would speak and words seem alien,
Half prophetic and frightening to hear:
And now we are six, murmured Thalia,
When we were one, we’d just begun, when we
Were two, were nearly new, when we were three,
Were hardly us, when we were four, were not
Much more, when we were five, were just alive.
But now we’re six, as clever as clever,
So let’s be six forever and ever.
And Samuel leaned forward, asked What’s that?
Nothing, just a poem I changed a bit
To make it fit for us. It’s called ‘The End.’