A Touch of Love

It’s always been my secret,
now others must learn its ways.
Start using words like “egret,”
in conversation on the page.

I began this a decade back,
while I sat alone and lonely.
Imagination an empty sack,
I thought of you and said, “If only…”

Pulled apart by distance and time,
I couldn’t feel you if I tried.
So I called to you, not in rhyme,
but poetically I kind of lied.

Made-up stories, observations
of a somewhat intimate nature,
took the place of conversations,
all in my own nomenclature.

My words became more than my own,
since they touched others in some way.
But now it seems I’m not alone,
since we all have to keep away.

I suggest if you crave a touch,
and social distancing won’t let you,
write an ode, sonnet or some such
and see how close that’ll get you.

We’re in a new world, living apart,
wearing the mask and rubber glove.
But if you wish to reach a heart,
a poem can be a touch of love.

Day 1 of a stab at my annual Poetry Month poem-a-day quest.

Love In the Time of Corona

So…what if this time it’s really the end?
The time to say adios, good-bye, adieu.
If it is, then what better time to send
one more poem, my friend, to say thank you?

Isn’t it strange how many questions I ask
when it wasn’t answers I really needed?
See? Now there’s two more I add to the task
of figuring you out. Never succeeded.

You whispered at me so many secrets,
then pushed me away when I’d lean too close.
Now, I’ve caught so many of your regrets,
and never knew why it was me you chose.

So here’s the end. Not too close, should I sneeze.
Never mind, we were always each other’s disease.

Sorry for the extra beat at the end. Sometimes such things don’t have a suitable explanation. They just have to be. Let’s just hope it’s like an extra heartbeat. Be well, stay vigilant, and know I’m always thinking of you as we each wait out whatever lies ahead. 

A Matter of Honor

They think I don’t hear them, but I do. Or at least I hear the hum of their talk with words bobbing up every now and then.

It certainly bests the sound of breathing, the crackle of my neck turning left and right on the cot, or the heartbeat that longs to feel hers, just to make some poetry that probably doesn’t rhyme anymore.

But out in the hallway, I’m pretty sure the guards are talking about me. I hear “bastard.” And maybe that was a “poor,” which I’d appreciate if this wasn’t the eve of the dawn we’ve been waiting for. Or dreading.

There! I’m pretty sure that was a “governor,” but it just as well could have been a “southerner,” or a “lovin’ her.” They all could apply to me. Though I’m not sure Yankees understand family and honor like we do.

I probably deserve the dance I’ll do when the sun clears the horizon. Eye for an eye and all. Carpetbaggin’ sumbitch deserved every last ball I put in him. Wish’d I had Daddy’s LeMat to wipe the grin off his face with a shotgun blast, too.

But some Yankee’s probably got that, too. Took everything, eventually, didn’t they? Saber, gun, horses, farm, Mama’s honor, my…

I heard the lock clank.

“All right, I’m afraid it’s time. Ya know, I’d have shot that scoundrel, too, Missy. If it’s any consolation. I take no solace in hangin’ a twelve year old girl,” the glossy-eyed, red-nosed sergeant said.

When there are no more of their culturally established defenders around, some women grow up fast to protect themselves and their own. Especially in a mid-19th Century rural society. This 250-word story reflects such a young woman doing what she decided needed to be done in a family whose men were erased by war. It’s in response to that first sentence up there, the prompt for this week’s Thursday Threads feature from author Siobhan Muir.

1919

As Alice put another cold compress on Frankie’s forehead, I had my hand on her shoulder and felt it heaving up and down.

“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. But when I looked in her eyes, they were dry. What I felt was not sobbing. She’d been suppressing her coughs, so she wouldn’t wake Frankie.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll take over now,” I said.

“Thank you, Frank,“ Alice said, pressing her burning cheek to mine. As she left the room, I heard her cough…hard.

For a year, I’d seen buddies die in front of me, nearly ripped in half by German Maxim machine guns, wrong place/wrong time in an artillery barrage, and now a cold that killed in only a few days. I’d seen it France. I was told by some of the boys soldiers were dropping like flies at Fort Riley in Kansas. We slid more than twenty over the side of the Liberty ship bringing us home to the States. They told me it had hit New York City, too.

I was beginning to feel guilty about how some folks were saying we Doughboys brought the sickness back to America, this Spanish Influenza. I didn’t need that kind of help. War can make a guy feel guilty all on his own.

Frankie murmured something and started coughing, a weak, choking sound, so I propped him up a little more. But I knew even that wouldn’t help much.

I’d gone to France because I was drafted, not to make the world safe for democracy.

I fought there to take care of my buddies, but you can’t take care of someone vaporized by an 88mm shell dropped on his head.

I stayed alive to get home to Alice and Frankie, to see my boy grow up. To feel the warmth of my wife again. Tonight I felt feverish heat.

I heard the bed springs ring in the next room, then heard Alice cough again. And again. And again.

You feel so helpless at a time like this, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life. How do you prepare for this? How do you prepare for dying by the hundreds and thousands? Or one at a time.

Frankie tried coughing again and he sounded like he was drowning and I could barely take it anymore. Such suffering for a kid. He opened his eyes and looked at me that same way. And that day broke through the thin crust I’d try to grow over the memory.

I saw that German kid in the middle of that shell hole again. It was full of water that had this yellow-green scum on top of it – the residue of their mustard gas. 

Me and my buddy Charlie Oakley had him covered with our Springfields and motioned for him to come out. But he wouldn’t. He just kept yelling – no, screaming – “Hilf mir, bitte.”

Then the boy, he wasn’t more than seventeen, I’d guess, he kind of fell over and his face went into the water. And he looked like he had shrunk by about a foot. He fell again and between the stagnant water in the shell hole and that Mustard residue, he started choking, drowning really.

Charlie said, “Shit, the kid’s stuck in there. Bottom of the hole must be all mud. I’ll fetch him.”

“Let him go, Charlie. He’s just another Kraut,” I said and spit into the water.

But Charlie was a preacher’s kid from North Carolina and it was obvious since all the way back in training at Fort Slocum that his mama raised him a real Christian gentleman.

Charlie slogged around to the far side of the crater and slid about halfway down. You could see how he was trying to figure out how he could reach the kid. 

“Hey, Frank, come over here. Hold my hand and I think I can grab this kid’s collar,” he said.

The mud in France is a living thing, you know, a monster that’ll suck your boots right off your feet and then eat your toes for dessert. As I clopped-plopped over to Charlie, the mud in that shell hole must have had enough of the German kid and it decided to try an American.

Charlie’s feet slid out from under him and, like on a sliding board, he flew out over the edge and fell flat on his back in that poison water and sticky mud. I ran over as fast as I could, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the German kid anymore, either.

“Charlie!” I screamed. I mean I screamed. Then I saw his head bob back above the water. But that was all I saw.

“Frank! Help me! I don’t want to die like this. Help me, buddy.” Then he went under again. 

He came back up, but all I could hear was this gurgling in his throat. His eyes were wild then they settled down. Just his face was above the water now. He stared at me like a yellow-green picture of Jesus in Gethsemane. Kind of pleading. And I knew what he wanted me to do.

I remembered what Jesus said that night. I looked into Charlie’s eyes and said, “Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Charlie sort of nodded and I raised my rifle and squeezed off the most difficult shot I ever took, even though my target was only seven feet away. Charlie disappeared, but the image of his face didn’t. Never will.

Frankie stirred again, shaking me out of this memory. I saw the whole thing in but a second or two. This time Frankie’s breath came like a fingernail swiped on a washboard. It sounded so much like guys who’d caught just enough gas to singe their throat and lungs, but not kill them. Not until they got to the hospital in Étaples. Then they’d get sick, dying there a day or two later. Fever. Lungs giving out.

Like Frankie’s did that night. Honest, they did. Alice lasted two more days. I’d been home three weeks and I can’t help but wonder. Did the influenza kill them or did the war?

Last night, I had that nightmare again where Frankie and Alice are neck-deep in the water and mud of that shell hole and pleading with me to save them. I raise my rifle, but just as i bring my rifle to my shoulder, I woke up. I eventually fell back asleep.

But then, a new dream. I hear the scream of that 88mm shell and it’s falling on top of me instead. I wake up and I realize it’s been me screaming. Again. But that 88mm falling on me? 

Oh, how I wish.

This story is a beefing up of a 250-word mini-flash I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. That version won the week’s contest. This version is the first draft of a more complete study of war, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a world-wide pandemic. Needless to say, it was in many ways inspired the coronavirus infecting folks worldwide. I just built around a similar illness from 100 years ago. 

Awaiting Your Touching Words

When you’re lonely, do you long for someone
who could find a way to reach out to you?
Does thinking of them make you come undone?
Don’t you wish you could reach out to them, too?

Rest assured you’re not alone, just lonely.
My friend in need, many share your distress.
I clothe my need in pretty words only,
you choose whether their those pants or this dress.

Just like you decide to accept my touch
when I reach out for a you who’s not there.
They’re all I can do, I know they’re not much,
but mere words are all I ever might dare.

So if my touching lines you’ve ever accepted,
send back your own. Please, do the unexpected.

Yeah, the final couplet of this janky sonnet is made of two eleven-syllable lines. But I’d hope you’d allow this desperate artist some leeway after all our years of sharing secrets, lies and truths beyond belief. I forgive you your sins, maybe you could forgive mine. They’re only words, right?

Hamlet and Prufrock Walk into a Peach Orchard…

My life’s grasp seldom exceeded its reach.
Most often it brought back nothing but air.
If I’d grasped it, I’d have eaten that peach,
but I’d not get a taste unless I’d dare.

Those times I stretched beyond my fingers’ tips,
you would just laugh and skip away a pace.
And so your flavor never graced these lips,
even when you’d skip back to tease my face.

I know it’s for the best I always failed,
except for these times my words caught your ear.
Like Prufrock’s Love Song, they’ll never be hailed.
I just wonder if I’ve made myself clear.

I’d still eat that peach, I’ve never forgotten,
It’s just overripe. I’ve become rotten.

Ugh. Sorry. For two years, chronic crippling depression has rotted the creative core of this once-prolific and not-half-bad writer. Whatever gifts I had, today present as useless mush. If I don’t get squared away soon, I fear you’re destined for more shoe-bottom sludge like this…or nothing. If I were you, I’d opt for the latter. Still grinding away, though. For me. For now… ~ JH

My Beloved Invention

No woman could compare to you
as you lie here in my arms,
unafraid, soft, constant,
after I turn out the lights.
In the dark, we are both perfect,
not puffy here, saggy there,
bent weary by age and the tools
with which life writes history
upon our once smooth bodies.
No, you are still perfect to me,
still my muse of fire that would
ascend the brightest heaven
of invention., my beloved invention.

And while none can compare to you,
I wonder if you still might compare
to the you I hold so dear each night.
The you who will never return
the thoughtful touch, never reach
for me as I pull you closer,
The one who probably won’t compare
to the imagined lover who lies
there at the head of my bed
wrapped in cool percale or winter flannel,
waiting all day for my nightly embrace.

You will always be the dream
I never had, but always felt,
the one who heard the poetry
I wrote for you every night
in whispers penned loud
as a lover’s cry here
on this silent sheet of white.
Someday, I hope either you
or this pillow my call will answer.

Sorry I’ve been gone so long. It’s been a long, hard road to 2020. I hope to return to being the prolific and thoughtful writer you once might have enjoyed. The guy who would write poems like this…only better. Welcome back, my friend. Love you.