by Jim Bartruff
|Image source: Collateral Damage|
Spurred by the aroma of wheat and lamb,
we had been starving the last hundred miles,
we lathered the horses over steppe and stone,
and before the body of our force had forded
the clearest rivulet we had crossed in a year,
a bustle of water circuiting their gate,
we dammed it with the limbs of the boys
they pushed out to be sacrificed, and delay.
Only the backward ship their decrepitude
into the hills to hide, let strong men die,
and leave their women to hold back the horde.
The white, the broken hairs black shawls tear
from their heads in a show of grieving and pain,
their village merely a smudge of charnel and ruin,
would never amount to half a hand of cordage,
not nearly enough to stake a calf to the grass.
We are feared but we are not amoral.
We killed the idiots as weak for refusing
to rape the children of the unbelievers,
and also the one who stormed the palisade
to get at the girl the king had set aside.
Tomorrow, when we mount and are gone,
the ancients skulking back will have a shame
to eat and little else, though once they awaken,
they'll see we have diluted their waste away,
have given them a purpose to pierce their ache.
By spring next year the rivulet will clear,
and if their golden roof thatch is erased,
there will be babies with other eyes than blue,
eyes with folds across their lids, and slants
of mind the likes of which they've never abided.
They'll know, just as we ascertained the mothers knew,
prying their tears apart to watch our teeth.
If I wasn't so young I wouldn't have fought;
because I fought them I was easy to find.
They smell as rank as elk must smeared on fur.
Only the first of them hurt, and their things were shriveled
compared to what I have seen attached to my brothers,
little vicious men with little things.
Eventually lazy and less insistent, they have let
me to the well on guard to wash them out.
I thought to jump but even drunk they held me
to have me later. Aunt they killed for complaining
but they needn't have, and mother's somewhere.
It is sister they have strapped in the cage.
If she fights, the king will call it a sign.
If she screams, she'll be eliminated.
Kings use any excuse they can to keep
their weakling and their swords within their sway,
and brothers long ago taught what works best.
I hope my sister can intuit His need.
I hope she chooses to survive and escapes,
and one day straggles through the wilderness
to what was home. The men are half-asleep.
Once their wine digests, we'll have a night,
and they will force me to watch their shudders and shakes.
But there are others who'll remember this.
From the lintel, like a hollyhock,
Father's head swivels on a silken knot.
Jim Bartruff's work has appeared in Canto, Westwind, Barney, Marilyn, Drastic Measures. He is a past winner of the William Carlos Williams and Academy of American Poets prizes. A third-generation native of Los Angeles, he was previously a print journalist and screenwriter, now living in Portland, Oregon.