Figures

A candle-lit dinner broken up by the cops.
Another long weekend at Grandma’s.
I couldn’t read the foreshadows
anymore than tea leaves:

a garbage bag of broken glass
torn open in the driveway,
a yellow letter pinched in the screen door
you ignored. We watched cartoons
you hated. You didn’t yell
when I dropped the popcorn.
For months the houseplants went unwatered.
The dog slipped out of his collar.

He would come at night in gym shorts and flip-flops
while I worked on a secondhand puzzle,
listening through the ducts to cards shuffle
between hands. Here I learned
the power of holding secrets,
the luck of the draw, addicted to
imagining how it would look
without the pieces missing.

I saw him one day
nosing through trash on the shoulder,
but you insisted it couldn’t be,
not even canceling your cruise control.
He’d been a footed bill
written off, a friendly favor you savored
regretting. I looked forward to the pawn broker’s
buffet of jewelry junk
every week before the grocery,
the yard sale when you sold
his dusty action figures
on our unmown lawn. That summer

I tracked him through a sea of cornstalks
until our footprints looked the same.
I know he glimpsed me through the blades of leaves,
from every photo on every milk carton,
tacked to lamp posts, collaged in bulletins
doubly lost. I kept an empty peg
to hang his jacket and hat, you an eye
open in the back of your head,
a loaded bullet bedside.

His apartment was a stone
I cried when you danced drunk on
at the cemetery, his legacy greasy
overalls dumped in a burn barrel.
In the end, I couldn’t pull
all your needles from his voodoo doll.
You were blind, but I knew his kind
monster, who pulled me under the bed
into a reckless world
ice cream colored.

Featured art: Suspense by János Kujbus

Image used with permission from the artist.

Mahar

Forty buffalo wait in a barbed wire pen
for the rain to come and green the grass for you
are just across the dust road
and smile at me.
Thirty horses will be born and bought
for you and never set free –
never being wild
their starving would be
worse and lonesome.

I feed the pigs I need to give up
to be with you and watch you
when your father isn’t looking
work in the garden.
Their ribs are showing.

Your mother scowls from the porch
but doesn’t tell.

II.

Returning from the market
pushing a cart of wilting vegetables
I turn the corner to look for you.

A dark car I’ve never seen
shines by your front door.

My wheel drops into a hole.

The coins in the drawer rattle.

III.

Weeks go by. The drought singes
the edges of the most resilient leaves.
Dust devils twist in the empty pastures
between our grass roofs and in reflections
of the merchants’ windows in town

I start to hate myself.
Full of dead dreams I see
melting from my pores

I am a candle
burning down.

IV.

The black car leaves.
Your parents build a cement house
my heart is trampled under

stampeding horses
thunder without rain.
Stronger than bamboo

more hollow
it stands dead and guarded
by a dark dog-shaped god

in a cactus forest.
I never see you again.

V.

As children together
we swept the stones
protecting the bones
of our ancestors clean.
Years later
old and alone
asleep in their shade
I see us in a distant meadow
green with rain
all the buffalo and horses
for miles gathering
to be given away.

Cultural note: on the island of Sumba, the price the groom pays to the bride’s family includes a number of horses, pigs, buffalo, and chickens, the bride price increasing for families of higher status. As much of the island at this time lives in poverty, this tradition has become quite an obstacle for young men seeking marriage.

Original photography by Paul Pope.