Beasts of Burden

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids?

There’s the pulled thread that unravels the sweater, the drop that spills the drink, tiny as a tear, long held.

That’s the thing with tears. Once they start––

There’s the camel that wins “Best in Show” despite a backache, whose keeper, in celebration, announces, “Watch this!” and adds one more thing, so light it seems impossible that any beast accustomed to carrying so much would feel it.

I heard they aren’t very smart. That they have to be led to food. That they––

Of course. You can’t make a creature a beast of burden if you are distracted by its intelligence. The keepers need to believe that they have it all figured out. The keepers need to believe that the camel is fulfilled in their service, that they would be just wandering around, lost and starving, without them. 

I heard they have three sets of eyelids.

And two rows of lashes. They can even close their nostrils against the sand.

Legend has it, they were acquired as spoils of conquest.

Or as gifts, to demonstrate wealth, as such creatures often are. Poets called them the ships of the desert.

Bodies repurposed as vessels, ambitious men could use them, whenever they meant to traverse land they were not prepared to walk. Arriving safely, they would claim victory, tell stories of the journey, and feel magnanimous for leading the ignorant beasts to food.

Then they’d eat them, right?

The carriers had tough meat, but they produced good milk. Better to eat the young.

I heard the mothers will mourn.

Yes, but the keepers, assuming stupidity, will stuff the skin of a slaughtered youth with straw and place it before the mother. She will smell her young. Then they find another small one. She will give the other small one her milk. If the other small one dies, both mothers will mourn. 

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids? They are as large as half my face!

Don’t tell me she didn’t see. Don’t tell me she didn’t understand that if she could close them against the sandstorm that would blind her she didn’t know to do the same thing when she sniffed the stuffed body before her. Don’t tell me a creature whose role is bearing what others can’t carry will suddenly stop, as if it just occurred to them that doing so was an option.

Not even to die? What about the last straw?

You ever see one die, except when slaughtered? You don’t, you just find the bones. 

What happens, then?

The heart breaks, then the body, and finally the back gives out.   

Then what?

They keep walking. If they can shut their eyes against looking, they can stop their legs from stopping, even into death. 

They keep walking?

They keep walking and they turn into ghosts.

I’ve heard stories.

No one ever sees the body give out.

These ghost camels, they walk at night, still with the packs on their backs. One day someone finds the bones.

Then what?

 What do people ever do with bones? 

Decorate? Grind them into powder, make glue?

Exactly. To hold things together. To strengthen the body.

Medicine, also?

Strengthening, healing, you name it. They use the bones against the breaking, and keep on.

Calypso’s Lament

She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left.

Let it be a song, then, and us inside its shattering wings — and you, when did I first know by your hand the letting of the blood of ancient wounds, unscheduled tears? If it began in this moment, where would you find me, if at all? In the space where we last slept, dream me dreaming you.

“Calypso” by Pinc Floit on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

My arms, so long beseeching some anchor, now find you, and the smooth plateau of your hungering back erupts in tremors above me; the aftershock a head before this altar, a whispered Amen. It is easy to learn new aches. New peace is something else, when the night undoes the day.

Let me be the simple task that is the most difficult to do; sketch filigreed complications on the stretched skin between these ribs, only bless and be blessed. “Shh,” someone says, don’t hurry, but I am faithful as the dog that holds on, because the desire to pray is a prayer.

If you will not heal my doubt, let me bear the unbelieving, about face, face this enemy facing consequence your face in my hands, I heard you calling, let me see.

In the beginning, the word; it was a god of open mouths, all breath and a promise. Take it, I say, here. I had only this imitation to give, and immortality. Blessed be this sin, teach me your new shame; to die is only difficult for the proud. If this kingdom we are holding is the only one, leave mine pillaged and let me know its glory only by what remains.

Let me give what I may not hold, dream an answer to the question I dare not speak aloud and pass it back, folded, in your hands. Do you fear the dead? I want to meet them in the olive grove before we find opposite sides of an invisible highway from which to sing our goodbyes. Let me know a patience to cook blood, freeze the earth against my cheek. 

Give us this day, taste. 

What is this mortal body? I want to study how it shudders around a heart. From this quiver pull a single arrow. Aim another card close to my chest; teach me new deliverance, then give me rest.

You had a secret and lost it. It was the expanse of your life. Look, I will open another to you. Call it forever. Come here. Let us be suddenly young and always, our monuments etched in Crayola hues, each touch conferring the ancient blessings of the rainbow that followed the flood.

What else did we ever do with our bodies, but offer them on altars, before the sun and the moon against drought and flood, against all the ways there were to die slowly we found new ways to sing, take me now and make it swift, so many candle flames roaring against the darkened hills?

Give me a sermon and I’ll sing you a psalm. Raise a hand, raise a glass, raise the dead. Take this body from this tomb where they left me in rags after the last breath I took alone. Brother, take my hand and do not move for it may pass. Hurry, it may get away. Are you tired? I am tired too, of waiting on this island, but how else do you take the measure of a beating heart?

*In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Calypso is a nymph on the island of Ogygia, where she detained the hero Odysseus for seven years, as he tried to get home. By the time he washed up on her shores, he had lost all his men and most of his hope. He found comfort and pleasure on the island, and was well cared for by the goddess, who was a match for his wit and a lover of music. His departure was an essential moment in his journey home, when she freed him reluctantly after receiving an order from Zeus, via Hermes, the messenger. She had offered the hero immortality if he stayed; he refused. She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left. As the story goes, there was no one like him. As I do with women of antiquity (including goddesses, nymphs, and gorgons), I sometimes wonder about what parts of her have been erased in order to fit the perspectives of the men who wrote her history for her.