The Ever-Chamber

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Here, the earth with its own compositions:

   the wheep-wheep-wheeps of the American avocet;

mirror-waters flushed by red-eared turtles;

   wind humming the black willow woodwinds;

trumpet creepers’ sirensong.

 

Here in the realm of the swamp where light

   is anything but still and my father’s mother warned him

Never enter, each whisper of his machete

   promises the city of conquistadors

paved with gold cobblestones, rivers of liquid ivory,

   Ponce de Leon and his crew aged not a day.

 

Here, Shreveport, Louisiana, 1958, where instead of glory

   he finds the cottonmouth hung like tinsel

with the violet blooms of sharp-winged monkey flower,

   warming its blood by those few rays of sun

that finger through the willows, my father approaching

   with grand sweeps of his blade.

 

Imagine that moment for the serpent,

 

he says, its sudden wakened eye black as a poppy seed,

   then that banded machinery of scales,

the clap of its jaw unhinged to action.

 

Gravity holds little dominion over the dedicated body

 

and it’s almost comical the way my father mimes

   the way the snake struck, reaching slow-motion

with his left arm, two fingers transformed into fangs, his eyes

 

and mouth growing into large Os

   as he twists away from the strike, right arm swinging down

just in time through the air

 

that here, in our living room—

   another Christmas Eve, another birthday—

is nothing more than air  

   but in that swamp became a flickering:

 

the reels of his future spinning before him

   like wartime clips of men dropped toward France,

their parachutes iridescent jellyfish in the night.

 

There, in the swamp, he saw Vietnam

   as though from the pages of an Atlas:

 

serpentine coastline of the South China Sea,

   a row of bodies lined up along a dirt road,

draft card a declaration of flame in his grasp,

   disappointment inscribed across his father’s face.

 

There, between my father and the snake:

   a dreamy image of the day my sister would bolt

out the back door and he’d search the neighborhood

   for hours, fearful he’s lost her;

 

two years later to the AM of my birth, body purple

   with meconium and blood, the screams of this child

for once welcome, skull warped with labor, gauzy

   as a milkweed’s seed pod.

           

            The swamp will show you things.

 

Then the machete and cottonmouth met,

   and the snake split in half, the blood of it splayed

in meticulous streams of black, the flat medallion of the wound

   like a plastic model of the cell: a nucleus of bone

surrounded by nerves, tissue, and chaos.

 

Here he stands. Still. Shocked he cannot reverse

   what he’s done. Stop! his mind had ordered. But here

the mind holds little over fate.

 

Here, had he stepped miles back with his left foot

   rather than his right

as he entered the sway of black willows,

 

   he’d be the one clutching at his struck face, virus

tunneling the chambers of his mind,

   swamp waters rising,

 

and it would be the cottonmouth seeking another tree trunk

   settled in the waters, certain in the ever-chambers

of its mind of what it’s done, certain

 

   as the gold domed cells of black willows,

as the kuk-kuk-kuks of herring gulls,

   my father thinking of his mother

 

who’d only taught him the little she knew

   as he turns to hack that snake into its smallest parts,

the ink of it spreading across the water’s surface.

 

   Retreating, he matches each footstep that brought him here

and when he emerges from this waving,

   unbalanced world, the hard-packed earth of the non-swamp

holds everything higher so that when he looks toward the sun,

 

the barn swallows dip lower, spread their wings

   to catch some air, then rise again, bobbing like buoys

along the invisible thread of their passage through the sky.

-First published in Fifth Wednesday Journal. 11 (Fall 2012): 96-99.

 

-Winner, Methodist University’s 22nd Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Contest