Speaking In Tongues
An icon of cheap, brittle plastic
(the texture of a necco wafer)
was pressed into the wet sand of the road.
The pink back, sun-faded and piebald,
caught under the toe of my boot,
snagging me like the time (breaking
into an abandoned house) I misstepped and shot
a three inch nail through my sole. It emerged
through the top, gleaming wetly, with malevolence,
and I hid it from my parents for a week.
I hid it until my sister eventually noticed the smell.
If Christ was pinned to the cross
with a red-iron spike, it would have
been driven in above the ankles.
Anywhere else and the flesh would tear
like a licorice whip, unraveling
from the bone in slick, bright ropes.
Anyway, this was a different kind of icon.
When I flipped over the arched token,
paper Guanyin stared up at me, throned,
and garlanded, pointing towards her chest,
and I was back in Sacred Heart,
sneaking into the rear of the sanctuary
in the middle of the service, with my dog
and my guilty protestantism, fingering
the bakelite beads of the rosaries that dangled
in the shop, like vines, and wondering
how the fuck, exactly, they were supposed to work.
The church was in the Spanish style
(pink tiles, flat roof, a plain, peach spire)
and a garden filled with the kind of rancorous,
untamable vegetation that does well in the heat.
There was a fountain filled with chlorinated water,
bluer than the Virgin's veil, with a gray statue
of Mary standing in it with her arms spread.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me,
all the days of my life, but I never expected mercy
to show up looking like this. I slipped Guanyin
into my pocket, next to a bead,
a stone, between my keys, and my flesh,
yanked back like a dog on a chain
to something I longed for then, and long for still,
but have never been able to reach.
I'm not going to write about what I saw in the barn.
I don't owe it to anyone. I don't owe it to you.
I'll set the scene, but not the action: the cow pen
(kick bar coated with sour feces and a thin scrim of blood)
the glinting metal; milk vats, rubber hoses, rope.
I'll show you the blue-black oil on the surface
of the water in the trough. Sorghum, fermenting
in the cracks of the floor. And the shadow of a man
cast against the wall, moving ever closer,
through the cold and the dark.
You can have the thin, unignorable hum of the fluorescent lights.
You can have the cries of babies, torn from the teat,
and the feel of their toothed mouths, rubbery lips
clasped round your finger. You can take all that away,
and with my blessing, but the action's mine to keep.
And if you flinch, when the scoop of a shovel
skitters its way down a rough stone wall
you can rejoice in the torn edges of your memories,
wrapped as you are, safe and warm in the armor,
of what you'll never know.
The Horned God
A seventeen year old boy
with a scrawny, pedophile mustache,
spent every morning welding milk-cows
to mechanical mouths, suction leeching
cream from their teats. I hated that boy,
and the chaw he spat in my face —
warm and brown as the shit I scooped
with the flat-edged barn shovel.
He lived at home, at his own home,
he just worked for the orphanage,
and he drove to the barn
in his daddy's battered brown ford.
Often there was an off-season deer
in the bed of it, sharp hooves jiggling
against metal and paint at every
bump in the road — a bullet hole
puckering in at the thick base
of the neck. In late spring, flies
skittered across the rubbery
glaze of the eye. A dark wound
that would never blink or startle again.
I watched him take a hatchet to a skull,
once, jostling plates of bone loose
from the brain, his grip strong
against the base of the antlers
as though he were tearing roses up
by the roots. Sometimes the sound of it
wakes me up in the night, the wet
squelch of roots torn through thick mud.
When I wake up, the bones in my jaw
ache with the memory of the blade
of the shovel, of what all else his hands did.
I see the near-weightless feet of a fat
horsefly indenting the jelly of an eye.
We are where we've been, we are
what we've been through.
There's nothing else to it.
Bethany W Pope has won many literary awards and published several novels and collections of poetry. Nicholas Lezard, writing for The Guardian, described Bethany’s latest book as 'poetry as salvation'.....'This harrowing collection drawn from a youth spent in an orphanage delights in language as a place of private escape.' Bethany currently lives and works in China.