Trompe la Mort



Among the papers that I’ve kept 
to remind me of who I was, 
I found a story, and almost wept.
Not that it was sad, just…because.

Because it stirred a time so bright
when this was like respiration,
autonomic, just sit down and write,
instead of wheezing desperation.

The open vein has run its course,
I can find nothing left to bleed.
When you were my art's driving force,
of these banal rhymes I had no need.

Perhaps the old I shouldn’t see
if all they did is bring more pain.
Maybe I should just reinvent me,
and tap some imaginary vein.

No, you could tell it wasn’t real,
and more fraud than ever I’d be.
So I’ll just tap the scars I feel,
a roadmap to my heart, maybe.

I’m not that same man, no longer,
but a poet of love and light still.
I cheated his death, now I’m stronger.
Just need time, my life to refill.

If I recall, a sorta-kinda translation of the French phrase “tromp la mort” is something like “cheating death” or someone who does. And it looks like I might’ve done just that.  

When the Lights Go Out



When the lights go out, 
will it be like all those nights 
I spent in the dark wondering? 
Only not wondering anymore?
When all is revealed, 
will it not have been worth 
my asking over all these years? 
Though I finally guessed the answer.

When the time comes, will you 
mourn the days, the hours, the minutes
we could have, probably should have?
Don’t answer that until then.
When I’m not there to reply, 
will you ask yourself why you couldn't answer 
the question never asked?
Probably as afraid of it as I was.

And when the words finally stop,
will anyone but you notice the echo 
in the empty spaces between the lines?
It was the wonder, the revelation,
the answer, the syllables surpassing 
all others when the sun shone upon us,
the candle would dim and flicker between us… 

       and the lights finally went out for good 
                                    before we were ready.

I Really Want to Know



With the sun so high and hot, the only shadows 
lie directly beneath the trees. 
The little buildings and addresses sit there 
in shades of golden brown or sugar white 
like baked goods fresh from the oven. 
But they’re not.

A few are fresh, all proofed and kneaded by 
same-named bakers, but most just sit there growing 
stale and lonely, even among all the neighbors 
left, right, front and back, we never knew.
Nobody peers over the walls and says, “How ya doin’?” 
‘Cause everybody knows.

Over there, a visitor sits on a folding chair in the bare, 
baking sun, his hands clasped, leaning forward, his head 
dripping, his cheeks even more. I see his lips moving, 
like the old Italian ladies’ do as they click through 
their rosaries, wishing for something they don’t want to 
believe'll never happen.

And I wonder what he’s saying and I wonder to whom.
Wife, mother? Sister, brother? Son, daughter, maybe his lover?
For a moment, I want to step through this quiet neighborhood, 
just to walk by and see who he’s visiting, maybe hear 
his side of the conversation. But then I remember 
why I came here.

So I pick my way through the yards, not wishing to disturb them 
as I might that quiet man. And I stop by your place, ignoring 
your neighbor. I look down and say, “Hi, Mom. How ya doin’?” 
‘Cause I figure here, as the cars and trucks roll by,  
where nearly no one talks, except the man and me, 
I really want to know.

Making It After All

I heard the voice say, “I think you’ll make it,” but I always hear voices. Some I don’t know. Some I long to hear attached to a warm breath again. This one straddled both.

And so what if I did hear that I was going to live some more when so many others weren’t? What if you go on living and there’s no one left you can live with? Or would want to live with you?

These are the questions you ask yourself when you get old and you can’t stand to look at the news, sports or especially the obituaries because inevitably there are names there you’ll recognize from when you were young. Or worse, when you weren’t young anymore.

It began happening in my late teens, but most were accidental checkouts – firearm mishaps, car accidents, lightning strikes, mountains falling on you, oh, and war. I was going to say “Could happen to anybody,” until I remembered those last few.

Then parents started dying all around me, which I recognize is just the natural course of things. No one gets out here still upright as far as I know, despite your magic act iconography.

I think it was observing the minds or bodies of some of those people going sour, like they’d exceeded their sell-by dates, that caused me to stare at the jam at the bottom of my own jar and find it separating.

Then you start losing your peers, your friends, or worse, your loved ones, and the loss, the doubts, the guilt, the pain work you over more than time has. That’s when your mirror becomes like the faultless window through which you watched all those “old” folks fail. Time just puts a matte coat on you.

Lately, even young ones are falling from unbearably low heights, too. 

“You do understand I said I think you’ll make it?” 

I know. But the bread’s gone all moldy and the shelves are bare. No one…I mean nothing to make it with anymore. What’s the sense of holding this small amount of sweet if I can’t reach it anymore, let alone share it?

“That’s what we have spoons for.”

I see. Just wait until I hear that cosmic cutlery drawer scrape open and the jingle of flatware dances in my head instead of your and their voices?

“Yes.”

How long do I wait?

“Can’t say.”

Make it how? Surviving or serving?

“Does it matter?”

Not anymore, no. 

“It’s been nice talking to you again.”

Nice hearing from you. And the other voices…?

“I’ve told them the same thing. They hear you, too.”

Oh. Stay cool everybody. We’re gonna make it after all … one way or another.

I’m not sure what to call this. I guess a brain and heart dump. But at least it’s there.

The Boat



They’ve taken the sheets, now even the mattress,
 for fear he’ll use them, himself to smother.
 They wager if he’ll last three days, at best.
 “I feel for the bastard,” some guards mutter.
 
 “What if a European had done it,
 crossing Il Mare in so small a craft?”
 “I’ve got no sympathy. No, not one bit,”
 said the oldest guard. With a sneer he laughed.
 
 “Serves him right trying to sneak in that way.
 Caught a wave wrong. That boat flipped like a toy.”
 “Yeah, but should he such a penalty pay?
 Can always send him back, but not the boy.”
 
 The disconsolate prisoner agreed.
 Mehmet wanted to pay for his blunder.
 Guilty of negligence a court decreed.
 “Why couldn’t it have been me went under?”


I was asked to write a poem in medias res last week and couldn't come up with anything because...that's how it is these days. But I heard a story on the BBC this morning about a man who had the misfortune to have happen what occurs in my poem. The world has always been, at best, an unforgiving thing. And the sea might be its harshest child. 
 

Clothes Make the Man

“Why must you always look like an unmade bed in an abandoned frat house?” Clarissa asked me last November.

Before I could even give her an answer, for which I had none, she marched me to her room and revealed an array of men’s clothing. It looked like some dog had shredded a copy of GQ on its mistress’ bed.

“Is this some kind of intervention, Clarissa?” I said as my bare right foot shifted toward the door. But my sister already had her $75 a pop (tip included) acrylic hooks into me and, lest she draw blood, I decided to humor her.

“Yes. I’m tired of seeing you in some grubby sweats or jeans perched on your ass and bundled around your ankles. It embarrasses me no end when you answer the door in what looks like the same teeshirt with the stain between your moobs when I know ALL you have are teeshirts with stains between the moobs.”

“That’s a lie,” I told her. “I don’t have moobs.”

“You need to upgrade your look for after graduation. Employers appreciate — and I’ll be proud of — your more refined appearance. Now, just for fun, try on this Prime Wardrobe haul I ordered.”

My big sister — my mother hen, my rock, since our Mom died. So… 

“Here, you’ll look great in this,” she said, and handed me this very suit, shirt and tie. You’ll have to admit, she was right. 

I just wish I’d never need it like this before graduation.

First 250-word Thursday Thread story I’ve been able to write in I can’t remember how long. And it even has a bit of a timely finish. Which I must admit is f**king untimely at any time. Found out one of the really good guys from my working days nearly died from COVID this year. A miracle meeting of the myriad strings of science, luck and family he survived. Unfortunately, the beautiful Clarissa up there, didn’t.

Full Circle

“What do you wish us to do?” the doctor asked, his benevolent demeanor, but with a double-parked, motor-running, it’s 4:58 on Friday vibe.

You never think about making the ultimate decision for someone you love. You divert yourself with other thoughts. What’ll the family say? How can I face myself after this?

“There’s no coming back for her,” the doctor said. But there’d be no coming back for me, either.

You stand still for that second, three heartbeats replacing the one normally filling that space.

“Okay.” My throat locking in that word and out the air.

The doctor does what he does. Then we wait. Not long. But a whole life together in an instant. She closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths and… Gone.

But in that instant everything changed. All from one second of indecision to decision.

I had to make the same decision for my Dad, a year later. Everything comes full circle, they say. But you don’t want on this ride more than once.

I’m sure the weepers thought me an unfeeling bastard. The doctor gave the same rap about no coming back, for the best, no-resuscitate order. Then…

“Well?”

In that second, the guy for whom agreeing to have his dog put down changed everything, nodded and said, “Okay, Let’s do it.”

Then I began to breathe again, as others began sobbing. They could never make this decision. But, like I said…in less than a second…changed everything.

I’d cry later.

The Visions of Henry At-the-Water and He Pounds With His Left Hand

Frances Canyon Pueblito ruins, New Mexico. Photo by T. Mietty, June, 2007.

“Another twenty, twenty-five,” Hank Atwater said as he counted the tufts of white drifting on the edge of his property, lonesome as clouds in the late-spring New Mexico sky. 

“They must be dropping like flies,” he said as he scanned the scattered sheep herd. 

“I know. Reminds me of the shipping fever we got back when I was a little one in aught-nine, but they was beeves,” his son Chet said with a chuckle.

“You think this is funny, Chester Mateo?” Hank’s eyes flashed beneath the shade of his sombrero. 

“No sir, I was just comparing how they’re all fine on Tuesday and dead on Thursday.” Chet had learned the hard way that hearing his father use his proper name followed by the baptismal name his mother gave him was akin to the warning of distant thunder. A storm could be coming.

“These ain’t cows we’re talking about, boy. And it ain’t these stinking, bleating blankets on the hoof, either. These are real people, despite what your grandfather would have you believe. And they been here a hell of a lot longer than he was. Even longer than your mama’s supposedly conquering Spaniard ancestors,” Hank said. He would’ve spit if he could work some up in his mouth.

“If these Navajo keep dying off like this, there won’t be any more sheep or wool or people living out here. And if there’s no people, then all you see is the flat nothing you can’t see in an old painting. No spirit, no soul. And if they can get sick, that means we can, too. You understand that, Chet?”

“Yes, Pa. I get it. But how’re you gonna stop these blanket-heads, I mean these folks, from getting sick? Or makin’ us sick?”

“That, Chester Mateo, is the problem. No one knows. Yet.”

Hank spurred his horse east, but veered off the main trail toward the edge of the Navajo reservation, toward the hogan of his friend Klah Etsiddy. Etsiddy’s family lived beneath an old pueblito tower of adobe bricks and mud. Normally, Hank would know his friend was home by the smoke coming from the smithy his grandfather built within the pueblito after The Long Walk from Arizona.

As they rode nearer, even Chet was aware something was different. All he heard was the wind. By now, he should be hearing the ring of Etsiddy’s hammer on his anvil, turning red-hot iron into tools or horseshoes. His father broke the silence as he spurred his horse into a lope toward the hogan, from which no smoke rose either.

“Lefty, you here?” Hank called out his friend’s nickname as he jumped out of the saddle. In the Navajo language, Klah Etsiddy meant He Pounds With His Left Hand. 

As Chet reined up, he saw his father approach the front of the house, then stop short a couple of yards from the entrance as a figure emerged from the shadows in the doorway. 

“Come no closer, Henry At-the-Water,” Etsiddy said. “I wish you well, my friend, so I ask that you stay back from my home. The evil spirit of your war against the Kaiser has invaded the Diné, I think.”

“Are you sick, Lefty? Is Johona all right? Your Mom, The kids?”

“We are not yet sick. But we are not attending the great healing ceremonies with other families because my mother is so feeble now. But you know she is a blessed medicine woman and a hand trembler. She had a vision that this great sickness was coming.”

“A vision? You’re kidding, right?” Chet said as he alit onto the hard-packed dirt in front of the hogan. AS he strode toward the doorway, his father roughly grabbed his arm.

 “Yes. She saw the saddle catch fire on the old horse’s back when was not near any flames. So we have eaten of that horse.”

Chet still couldn’t believe what he heard. “What?” he said as he scanned Etsiddy’s corral. “Out here in the middle of nowhere, no doctor for fifty miles. An old grandma and kids. And you ate one of your only ways of getting help?” Chet asked. Hank shot him another of his thunderstorm looks.

“My mother knows what to do, Chester At-the-Water. I took one of my other horses to warn my neighbors, but they aren’t so…accepting of Mother’s gifts. So we will stay here and follow the old ways.”

“Pa, I can’t take anymore of this blanket-head hocus-pocus shit. I’m gonna start for Gallup. I’m stopping at the Jennings’ spread on the way.”

“I would feel a lot better if you went right home, Chet. Your Mom might be needing you until I get there,” Hank said. But, with a squeak of leather and of huff of breath from his mount, Chet was already in the saddle and headed to his girlfriend’s father’s ranch.

“I swear. That boy will be the death of me, Lefty.”

“He is young and has not found his way yet, Henry. He needs guidance and knowledge of the spirits inside him and around us.”

“He needs a swift kick in the ass is what he needs. So what is it you and your family really gonna do, Lefty? I worry about you out here.”

“Mother said we should be safe. She was taught by her grandfather who was a great hatalii during other such sicknesses. We have seen illness as bad as this before.”

“I don’t know, my friend. The doctors still don’t know what this thing is or where it really came from. Some say France, where they were fighting the war. Some say Kansas, where we trained boys to go fight there,” Hank said, pushing the brim of his hat back.

“As I said, Henry, any way you look it is the evil shadow of that war begun this sickness, as sure as the many rivers like the webs of spiders are born of one, Tółchíʼíkooh, the river you call Colorado.” 

Well, just the same, if I didn’t know you and the Diné as you taught me, I’d haul you back to my place, just to be closer to a doctor.”

“Henry, I am already closer to any doctor than you are. She sleeps on the other side of my hogan,” Etsiddy said with a chuckle.

“What’s she sayin’ to do?” Hank said.

“We are now supposed to stay away from others, keep our life force close within us. After today, I will not see you until this is over or in the next life. I only leave the hogan to go to the pueblito or to tend the animals. We will pray and keep ourselves clean. Mother says I should not go to my forge because it will make my hands too dirty.”

“She wants you to keep your hands clean? How the hell…?”

“Yes, it is what she was taught. We have many things to do. The children will learn from Mother, Johan and me more in the next weeks than they would in many months. This illness could be a good thing for my family.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, compadre, but I learned a long time ago not to pooh-pooh the teachings of the Diné elders. They proved too right too many times. Hell, you’re all still here, aren’t you?”

“Many won’t be after this, Henry. I have cleansed myself in a great sweat and seen this in a vision, too. I pray you take Mother’s warning to heart for yourself and your family. Keep close to home. Keep clean. Stay happy. Pray. That’s the best way I can explain it to…”

“A white man?”

Both men laughed.

“Well, Yá’át’ééh, Klah Etsiddy, my friend. You keep well, okay?”

Yá’át’ééh, Henry At-the-Water. I hope to see you when the sickness is gone.”

But Hank Atwater and Klah Etsiddy did not see one another again.

Hank decided to adhere to his friend’s mother’s advice, but his son did not. That day, Chet stopped off at the Jennings’ place where his girl, Alice, was nursing a tickle in her throat. With a peck on the cheek, he left for home.

In a week, she was dead. 

In ten days, so were Hank Atwater and his wife. But, for some reason, not Chet.

When word of his friend’s death reached the hogan of Klah Etsiddy, the Navajo blacksmith arose from listening to his mother teach his children about how the Diné Bizaad continued to survive in this difficult land over the centuries. His children kept her alive she told her son many times. 

“Even with all our prayers and Mother’s knowledge, the great illness took my friend. But I will always believe Henry At-the-Water had a vision of his end,” Etsiddy said to his wife. 

“He always told me Young Chester Mateo At-the-Water would be the death of him.”

Man, I’ve been aching to write one of my Western stories for months. Who knew that the Coronavirus pandemic would be the impetus for one? Upon rereading it, I believe certain spirits have whispered to me how I might grow this tale into something greater. Nevertheless, I wished to share this infant story with you at this time.

Oh, and I did my usual quick and nerdy research for this this story. The Navajo did, as they are with COVID-19, suffer horribly with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. But, anecdotally, some families were not touched so severely. And Edittsy’s mother prescribes how they say they did.

 

“Another twenty, twenty-five,” Hank Atwater said as he counted the tufts of white drifting on the edge of his property, lonesome as clouds in the spring New Mexico sky. 

“They’re dropping like flies,” he said as he scanned the scattered sheep herd. 

“I know. Reminds me of the shipping fever we got back in aught-nine, but they was beeves,” his son Chet said with a chuckle.

“You think this is funny, Chester Mateo?” Hank’s eyes flashed beneath the shade of his wide-brimmed hat. 

“No sir, I was just comparing how they’re all fine on Tuesday and dead on Thursday.” Chet had learned the hard way that hearing his father use his proper name followed by the baptismal name his mother gave him was akin to the warning of distant thunder. A storm could be coming.

“These ain’t cows we’re talking about, boy. And it ain’t these stinking, bleating blankets on the hoof, either. These are real people, despite what your grandfather would have you believe. And they been here a hell of a lot longer than he was. Even longer than your mama’s supposedly conquering Spaniard ancestors,” Hank said. He would’ve spit if he could work some up in his mouth.

“If these Navajo keep dying off like this, there won’t be any more sheep or wool or people living out here. And if there’s no people, then all you see is the flat nothing you can’t see in an old painting. No spirit, no soul. And if they can get sick, that means we can, too. You understand that, Chet?”

“Yes, Pa. I get it. But how’re you gonna stop these blanket-heads, I mean these folks, from getting sick? Or makin’ us sick?”

“That, Chester Mateo, is the problem. No one knows. Yet.”

Hank spurred his horse east, but veered off the main trail toward the edge of the Navajo reservation, toward the hogan of his friend Klah Etsiddy. Etsiddy’s family lived beneath an old pueblito tower of adobe bricks and mud. Normally, Hank would know his friend was home by the smoke coming from the smithy his friend’s grandfather built within the pueblito after The Long Walk.

As they rode nearer, even Chet was aware something was different. All he heard was the wind. By now, he should be hearing the ring of Etsiddy’s hammer on his anvil, turning red-hot iron into tools or horseshoes. Hank broke the silence as he spurred his horse into a lope toward the hogan, from which no smoke rose either.

“Lefty, you here?” Hank called out his friend’s nickname as he jumped out of the saddle. In the Navajo language, Klah Etsiddy meant Pounder With the Left Hand. 

As Chet reined up, he saw his father approach the front of the house, then stop short a couple of yards from the entrance as a figure emerged from the shadows in the doorway. 

“Come no closer, Henry At-the-Water,” Etsiddy said. “I wish you well, my friend, so I ask that you stay back from my home. The evil spirit of your war against the Kaiser has invaded the Diné, I think.”

“Are you sick, Lefty? Is Johona all right? Your Mom, The kids?”

“We are not yet sick. Though we are not attending the great healing ceremonies with other families because my mother is so feeble now. But you know she is a blessed medicine woman and a hand trembler. She had a vision that this great sickness was coming.”

“A vision? You’re kidding, right?” Chet said as he alit onto the hard-packed dirt in front of the hogan. As he strode toward the doorway, his father roughly grabbed his arm.

 “Yes. She told me she saw the saddle catch fire on the old horse’s back when it was not near any flames. So we have eaten of that horse.”

Chet still couldn’t believe what he heard. “What?” he said as he scanned Etsiddy’s corral. “Out here in the middle of nowhere, no doctor for fifty miles. An old grandma and kids. And you ate one of your only ways of getting help?” Chet asked. Hank shot him another of his thunderstorm looks.

“My mother knows what to do, Chester At-the-Water. I took one of my other horses to warn my neighbors, but they aren’t so…accepting of Mother’s gifts. So we will stay here and follow the old ways.”

“Pa, I can’t take anymore of this blanket-head hocus-pocus shit. I’m gonna start for Gallup. I’m stopping at the Jennings’ spread on the way.”

“I would feel a lot better if you went right home, Chet. Your Mom might be needing you until I get there,” Hank said. But, with a squeak of leather and of huff of breath from his mount, Chet was already in the saddle and headed to his girlfriend’s father’s ranch.

“I swear. That boy will be the death of me, Lefty.”

“He is young and has not found his way yet, Henry. He needs guidance and knowledge of the spirits inside him and around us.”

“He needs a swift kick in the ass is what he needs. So what is it you and your family really gonna do, Lefty? I worry about you out here.”

“Mother said we will be fine. She was taught by her grandfather who was a great hatalii during other such sicknesses. We have seen illness as bad as this before.”

“I don’t know, my friend. The doctors still don’t know what this thing is or where it really came from. Some say France, where they were fighting the war. Some say Kansas, where we trained boys to go fight over there,” Hank said, pushing the brim of his hat back.

“As I said, Henry, any way you look it is the evil shadow of that war begun this sickness, as sure as the many rivers like the webs of spiders are born of Tółchíʼíkooh, the one you call Colorado.” 

Well, just the same, if I didn’t know you and the Diné as you taught me, I’d haul you back to my place, just to be closer to a doctor.”

“Henry, I am already closer to any doctor than you are. She sleeps on the other side of my hogan,” Etsiddy said with a chuckle.

“What’s she sayin’ to do?”

“We are now supposed to stay away from others, keep our life force within us. After today, I will not see you. I only leave the hogan to go to the pueblito or to tend the animals. We will pray and keep ourselves clean. Mother says I should not go to my forge because it will make my hands too dirty.”

“She wants you to keep your hands clean? How the hell…?”

“Yes, it is what she was taught. We have things to do. The children will learn from Mother, Johan and me more in the next weeks than they would in many months. This illness could be a good thing for my family.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, compadre, but I learned a long time ago not to pooh-pooh the teachings of the Diné elders. They proved too right too many times. Hell, you’re all still here, aren’t you?”

“Many won’t be after this, Henry. I pray you take Mother’s warning to heart for yourself and your family. Keep close to home. Keep clean. Stay happy. Pray. That’s the best way I can explain it to…”

“A white man?”

Both men laughed.

“Well, Yá’át’ééh, Klah Etsiddy, my friend. You keep well, okay?”

“Yá’át’ééh, Henry At-the-Water. I hope to see you when the sickness is gone.”

But Hank Atwater and Klah Etsiddy did not see one another again.

Hank decided to adhere to his friend’s mother’s advice, but his son did not. That day, Chet stopped off at the Jennings’ place where his girl, Alice, was nursing a tickle in her throat. With a peck on the cheek, he left for home.

In a week, she was dead. 

In ten days, so were Hank Atwater and his wife. But for some reason, Chet did not fall ill.

When word of his friend’s death reached the hogan of Klah Etsiddy, the Navajo blacksmith arose from listening to his mother teach his children about how the Diné Bizaad survived in this difficult land over the centuries. His children kept her alive she told her son many times. 

“Even with all our prayers and knowledge he has earned as my friend, Hank At-the-Water’s vision was right,” Etsiddy said to his wife. 

“I believe Chester At-the-Water did turn out to be the death of him.”

Hoka Hey ~ A Prose Poem


We spend our lives competing in a litany of engagements versus Nature. They’re held in Hamlet’s penumbra between the light and shadow of being and not-being. We join most of these struggles without even realizing if they’re flapping retreat or slapping leather. Call that growing, aging, maturing. Surviving. Then, one day, Nature begins filching pieces of us, shorting our strength in muscle, sinew, memory, beauty, being-ness. Worth. Such encounters inevitably become confrontations, confrontations become duels, duels become skirmishes, clashes, battles. They multiply into siege, then war. Then Nature takes the field. Nature always takes the field. It’s her field, full of beauty, grandeur, filth, terror, the simple-to-complex machinery cranking sunup to sunup to sunup, even up to and beyond my ultimate sundown. The might and light are fading now. Will my head rise with the sun tomorrow? Will I charge over the top to fall at last in a shell hole in Nature’s No Man’s Land? Maybe one gouged there by my own side? No, I think I’ll dress my line, dig in deeper. To fight on is MY Nature. Where I stand is MY field. I’ve planted MY seeds here. I built MY fortress on this ground. I fly MY banners of defiance, art and love above all this mud and blood churned by the savage Nature of Humanity and the all-too-human Humanity of Nature. I sing the body electric, not the death song. “Hokahey” doesn’t mean “It’s a good day to die.” It means, “Let’s do this.”
“Hokahey.”

Just too worn out by several things yesterday to participate in NaPoWriMo, but I was ready to fight on today. Asked to write a Nature poem, of which I’ve done a ton, I instead sat to my keyboard and “let Nature take it’s course.” The result is this, which I shall call a prose poem. I think it hits a couple of meanings of the word “nature.”