• Vol. 01
  • Chapter 06
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Thinking Of Excuses While I Wait For Him To Get Here

I made it so you could find me, it’s not like I’m hiding. The first thing that happened that wasn’t supposed to happen was that there were two of them. And the second one was a woman. Would you have wanted me to go through with it then? Even doing what we’re doing there’s a code, I thought. They didn’t show up. He didn’t show up. I waited and waited. Slow flood of shadow from the mountains covered the car, covered me. I was pretty pissed I can tell you standing there like I don’t know what, my hands all numb and too clumsy anyway. Why I didn’t call you? Why I didn’t call you… My sister … There was … The can is from target practice. I was all rared up to do my job. Now the wind whistles through it in a whining automatic blues. It’s a shame. It’s not what I wanted, I can tell you that. I had a blow out and remember I used the spare last month so I was too late by one hour. I lost the trail. There were three of them. I saw cops. The desert can just drain all your purpose away. It burnt me down into my miserable boots. I admit I drank some. My mother had a premonition. The sun shifted at the crucial moment into this unfortunate alignment, locked in with his windshield and blinded me. It was like the universe didn’t want it to happen. I think he got spooked and turned back. The wind felt very narrow, like I was in a tunnel and I didn’t want to be, you know what I mean? And an eagle was riding it right at the top, and that spooked me. There was this glare from his windshield right in my eyes. Everything got very light or very dark. It all got separated into floating pieces and it wasn’t safe to try. I think he must have got the day wrong. He’s out there. Oh, I know he’s out there. I wish he wasn’t as much as you. I hope you remember I’m your friend.

1

I’ll Remember This

I thought I saw Jesus, arm stretched high, head wrapped in a blue cloth as if he stole his mother’s robes and left her bare headed, gasping. The sun is turning the sky liquid and the sand into salt that scales my skin. Heat haze: look up, and the hope that rushes through me is the beginning of a bright, bright glory, filling my heart as if that Jesus has been put there just for me. I never believed in God before, but after the way I have learned to pull the trigger, after the shells I have scattered, after the dust I have blown across this once verdant land? I do.

I voted in 1999 and I marched in 2003. I had already enlisted and I hoped that the war wouldn’t last long enough for me to go to it. I grew up shooting holes in a beer can stuck on a post, trying to be better than my brothers, so I got my orders. Jesus, this place looks nothing like our yard.

I used to shoot and think about how one day I would bring peace. Save the people from the vultures and the dogs and the cheetahs, the sand flies are the worst: spies everywhere. Red ants don’t crawl; they scoot away from me, from the poppies that drop from me. In the desert the stillness is so eerie and I’ve counted seven bullet holes in me like eyes in a potato. I think I can see Jesus, waving me down.

Stop. Stop with the heat and the pale blue sky, a cathedral roof blown out over the earth. Make it stop, because it hurts. Is this what praying feels like? Soaring of a dark bird over distant hills, with no promise of return? Come back, my mother wrote me, over there is no place for girls.

Mother, I say. I get to the post, and the old bud can with the dark holes and the wire fence and the homestead. The red curtains flutter in the breeze: there is a breeze. And she is there waiting, like we just said goodbye. I remember her funeral, when I was last here.

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2

Prairie Rose

There are no casual bullets in the desert. The only signs of life, signs of manufacture. This scrapwood drawing instrument is seen from all angles, a catchpole splint in urban camouflage. Almost it leaves no shadow, does not call on light to make any decisions whatever. But where is incendiary evidence of an aim, the smoking gun of the camera? And what is the difference between pure and applied garbage? The one fails even to rein in visible surface debris, the other becomes tethering-post for an entire state. With or without suction, the extended synonymy of light and power is terminated here, in a word that jams in the breech, in a bud that will not blow.

3

Target Practice

The two men were the first people to come upon the scene, that is, since what had happened had happened.

‘What’s the story here?’

Larry followed Tim’s eyes to the can of Bud Light glinting in the sun a few feet from them. The pointed end of a length of wood that looked like it was once a part of something bigger was stuck in the can’s opening, holding it up in the air.

‘Target practice,’ Larry said. ‘See them bullet holes.’

‘Yes, but beyond that, beyond the obvious, what do you see?’

Larry was walking behind, so he could roll his eyes without Tim seeing. After three weeks working with Tim, Larry had decided that his revered mentor sounded much smarter with a camera before his eyes. On their last shoot yesterday, in an empty room with white walls and an empty picture frame hanging askew, Tim kept screaming, his voice bouncing off the walls, ‘Visualize the things no one else can!’ Larry visualized himself decking Tim.

In keeping with their theme for the week, Empty Spaces, they had come to this place.

‘It’s like someone set this up for us,’ Tim said.

He was right. The day before, after burying the body of the friend he’d shot for sleeping with his girl – having decided to do so just a moment before he turned from the Bud can during their daily target practice – a local man had decided to leave the scene as it was.


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4

The Lone Guardian

He stands there, in silence, honouring his self-appointed task. He wears tattered clothes, his tired eyes never sleep. They intently stare at the invisible line that decades ago men in black suits drew on a map while drinking fragrant tea that travelled the oceans in puffing steamers.

The lone guardian never moves, he worries that in the split second of his absence the line may shift, or worse disappear thus depriving him of the very meaning of his existence.

He was caught as a child in a buffer as men with rulers traced the straight line that parted two countries, divided families and appointed enemies. He was caught in the middle, on the line, where would he go? He was too young to choose, too lonely to understand: he did not know and opted to stay.

He decided to inhabit the line he could not see and found himself neither there nor here. It was an act of faith, he trusted the invisible and he is now its lone guardian. And so he walks on a split horizon. Each ear is tuned on the slightly different inflections of what are now two separate languages. Each eye focuses on a minor declination of what have now to be considered separate landscapes. He is in both sides, but belongs to neither.

His stooping shoulders have endured years of insults. He fears trespassing, the challenges to the unseen authority, the dreadful possibility of mixing and exchanging. “The line is clean and clear”, he thinks. Its reassuring straightness is comforting so much so that he can forget its arbitrariness.

He knows that eyes he does not know are watching him as he watches the line. He knows he is not alone. He knows that, if nobody else, at least those eyes love him. And so he stands. In silence. And lets the wind blow dirt on his shoes even if dirt comes from either side of the border.

5

“A Horse with No Name”

Dewey Bunnell 1971

  I know that desert.
  I remember the signpost.
  I tethered my horse there.

  I got my bearings,
  that is my trade mark
  sticky-sticky life tape.

  Keeping the wood together.
  Keeping the faith.
  Lining up the holes.
  Wood worm eating

  up my life – splinters
  in the desert heat.
  Fractured from the mother
  of all suns.

  My horse kept me sane
  but I ran out water
  and food stuff.

  But I came back to
  find him and he had

  morphed into
  the wood and only
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6

What the Vulture Saw

Beautiful blue
This is what they call sky blue
A serene wash. Not cool.
No, not cold. Never cold here.
Dust, dust everywhere. Bone dry they say.
Like that stick of wood. Parched. Splintered.
Run your fingers along it and you'll soon know.
Quiet too.
Not peaceful. This quietude drinks everything up.
See that can there:
I watched him suck the contents out.
Then: bang-bang-bang!
A caterwaul came from his mouth. A liquid wail.
The ground met his knees.
Head lolling forward. Arms spread out.
A desert scarecrow.
God! Where are you God?
Words screamed into stifling air.
Smothered.
And the caterwaul again.
His own Jesus in the wilderness.
7

Eulogy

Perhaps this will be our epitaph:
desolation of plain, mourning
the woods and fields which once
birthed leaves and verdant green,
the hum of bees: exuberance of life.

Already in our greed we ravish
land, tear up the trees,
spit out the silicon from sand.
Pitilessly steal Earth's living wealth
and call riches our financial health.

How long can we still murder her,
oblivious,
before we find
that death is shared by all:
when all that's left
is one tin can pierced to its empty heart,
keening in voiceless testament
to the unforgiving fall?

8

Desire Drowning in Desert

She can't get angry by the abstract,
So she weaves tales of a stark obliqueness.
Desire drowning in desert,
The art of attrition.
Blood against a white background as
She builds him in the sand
A token, emblematic,
A shambling straw man in the line of fate, of futility, of folly.
She piles him high and stares.
His body is barren,
Riddled with holes,
Spirit strained through intangible years she can only imagine,
Grasping for that jouissance that has evaporated into the ether
But lay etched across the skin.
There is no one to fill in the ellipsis but her,
Her longing for him.
He greets her,
Scarred and weathered with wisdom infinite,
And she loves him for it.
9

Testament

Mama Louisa wasn’t our real mama, we all just called her that. She used to be Sister Louisa, but when little Joseph came along she couldna be a Sister no more. No sir! But the name kinda stuck.

Joey, he was this little kid, all slumped in the shoulders and eyes too close together. Sure wasn’t no second coming of Jesus. A little scrap like that! Ugly too. Like nothing we’d seen before. And Mama Louisa – she never could convince us it was Immaculate Conception, not with that glint in her eye. The woman was mostly bosom anyway – and women built like her – all wide hips, breasts and arms like rising bread? They’re just about made for bearing children. Not miracles.

No one would tolerate her. A Sister turning out a child? Red Hollow was too small a town for your sins to go un-repented for. The wives and even the husbands, they used to ignore her in the street. Going against the Good Book, and that oath she swore? No one would trust a woman like that. Let alone respect her. She was asking for too much. Even the Pastor, Rev. Ouston used to cuss her and now, he was a man with a terrible temper. He took the Lord’s word as gospel alright. His sermons could turn the desert air to ice. I heard him say she made light of the good word by having the baby and staying around for us to watch it grown.

Oftentimes she took these long walks up past the edge of the town, taking a bus or hitch-hiking I suppose. “Just going to see my Aunt Delta,” she’d say and off she’d walk with a homemade pie in her bag and dust clouds chasing about her feet. I reckon she was just getting outta sight, so she didn’t have to feel ashamed no more. She was always ready to forgive. Always had a smile taped on. I admired her for that, after the way we all treated her.

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10

Welcome to the Badlands

Welcome, they said.

This is our playground, our front yard.

It’s your first day. We’ll show you around.

Steal the letters of your name off the plastic sign of the liquor store
in the neon light of the morning.

Welcome, to these dry rituals.

Your eyesight needs to be good here.

Burning light is an asset. Especially when following the moving target.

Flat gravel is good to do wheelies in - as the trucks race each other
like giant growler beasts.

Welcome, to survival.

There always should be a cooler in your trunk.

Noon is not an option here. You better learn how to track lizards.

You know how to drink beer like water? Well done, girl.
Now aim at that glint like the sky. Yeah.

Welcome, you done good.

11

HOMER

Daddy said in 1913 it got so hot birds died mid-flight, jus fell out the sky like black meteors.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Daddy alus tole that story when someone new came in the bar, to see their eyes go wide at the power of nature. He liked telling stories. That’s why he had the TVs removed from the rooms, said folk should talk to each other. He was right too. When I was a kid, I remember the bar was alus full with customers talkin t’ each other, bout where they was from and where they was going.
Daddy tole them about the coyote too, how it had lost its ma and had been beggin by the roadside since it was a pup. He made sure to tell em not to feed it, that it needed to hunt for itself. No one listened though. That coyote got fat on Cheetos and salami. It use to waddle along like a Florida pensioner. Me and my twin brother Nate called him Homer.
Daddy bought us guns when we was eight years old, said a man should learn to hunt. He showed us how to clean and load and aim and he rigged up targets in the yard using cans left by customers. We’d spend every free moment firing at those targets. Sometimes the city folks’d watch and give us quarters for hitting em. Looking back, they must’ve thought we were freaks, little eight year old kids wielding rifles for their entertainment. It was about then that Ma got sick and Daddy was away at the hospital a lot. A big mean woman called Matilda looked after the motel and we spent most of our time outback with the targets.
Ma never came home.
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12

She Lived Hard and Fast and Could Never Love Me

“It’s going to jump a bit,” she said massaging my shoulder. “Going to kick back right in here.”
    “I can handle it,” I said and could feel the morning heat on my face and neck, my skin beginning to pink.
    She helped me tuck the AR-15 into position, arms wrapped around me, then pointed with two fingers across the desert past a small strand of creosote to the target. “Hit the can,” she said and stepped back, smiling. “You think you can?”
    “What happens if I do?”
    “A surprise.”
    I looked down the length of the barrel across the expanse of beige at the can of light beer balanced atop the stake stuck deep in the ground and shot full of holes already. “Thing’s taken a lot of abuse, huh?”
    She scuffed her workboots against the earth and cracked her knuckles and laughed. “I bring all my boyfriends here.”
    I wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not and took my finger off the trigger and lowered the gun. I visored a hand on my forehead to block out the sun, watched as her form evaporated back into being. “Can you hit it?”
    “Quit stalling.”
    “It’s a legitimate question.” Pause. “Can you?”
    “Of course I can but this isn’t about me.”
    “I know.”
    She removed her sunglasses and I could just make out her eyes in the light. “You want to use these?” She handed them over and I put them on and watched her and everything drown in brown-green. “Might make it a bit easier for you.”
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13

Landmark

You shall never know. No one
will. I chose this place alone and
it was there that it was found.

What was found is for me alone
to cherish. What was left behind
is for the sky to witness.

Small sacrifices take place away from our eyes
on a daily basis - this was mine, and it was nothing
special.

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Paper Crosses

The preacher took shelter under the shade of a freeway arch, stood on an upturned crate with one palm to his heart, the other turned to the crowd of gathered homeless Without a buck to their name, all torn shirts and bare feet, grateful to be alive They closed their eyes and pointed their paper crosses skywards as 50-grand trucks just cruised on by Those same trucks overtook me in my son’s beat up Taurus, I’ll admit I was embarrassed In their raised pickups, looking down at me over tanned forearms, they pitied me I sulked into the slow lane for a while as clouds blocked the sun I consciously made an effort to think about the reason for the journey – my father, a proud guy He’d raised me and my sister in Giddings, Texas Towards the South, bang in the middle The summers were unbearable Yet six days out of seven, my old man blasted through a ten hour shift, without a single word of complaint Understandably, he spent those Sundays off doing as little as possible - football on the tv, beer in his hand, a real stereotype He didn’t say much but I sensed he enjoyed his life Unlike me, he was a natural provider The way he looked at our evening meals, knowing he put them there, that gave him all he needed I didn’t want any of that shit I ain’t hobbling round my house with a crooked spine for the sake of a five dollar steak I couldn’t grasp it Not when those bastards drain the land he worked on, sucking every dollar out of it And when they ran out, they send our brothers to some godforsaken desert to shoot women and children to gather more The juice didn’t seem worth the squeeze Maybe that’s why I’m cramped in Casey’s Taurus, sweating the t-shirt clean off my back My sister left town as soon as she hit 18, moved to Austin to set up some sort of incense store or some shit I haven’t seen her in years Truth be told, none of us have It crushed my dear ol’ mother to see her go, dementia seemed to kick in almost right away Read more >
15

1460 Wakefield and Shrewsbury

(A Messenger brings the news of the deaths at the hands of the Lancastrians of the Duke of York and the seventeen year old Earl of Rutland to Edward, Earl of March – later King Edward IVth. York and Rutland were decapitated and their heads impaled on poles overlooking the city of York. In Henry VI Part Three, Shakespeare focuses more upon the battle in which they died, and Edward’s raising of his own army.)

Messenger:     My Lord, he overlooks the city: crowned
        He is…my tongue is shamed to speak the words –
        A paper crown to mock his bold ambition.
        Beside, him, Sire, your brother Rutland bends
        His sightless eyes upon his father’s face.
        All this was done at envious Clifford’s hands.
        But even in our grief, my Lord, we marvelled
        Much how brave York’s eyes in death could yet
        Enkindle fires of sure revenge within
        Our hearts. And so we come to kneel before
        You, Sire – your true liegemen in life and limb,
        The hope of York and England’s rightful heir.

16

Ragtag Rat Pack

“Showtime,” says Dad walking out of his bedroom wearing a white dress shirt, black tuxedo with fraying sleeves, trousers and leather brogues. His ankles are visible as he’s forgotten to put socks on again.
“Where are you tonight?” I say.
“Vegas,” he replies. “Next door to Frank, you never know I might meet him.” He met Frank Sinatra years ago at the Golden Buffalo; Dad’s band was practicing and Frank strolled through the rehearsal room. He told my Dad ‘he dug his groove, it was real loose’. I heard this story every week growing up, until the memory became buried treasure.
“Where’s the band?” Dad asks.
“It’s okay Dad, I’ll sort it.” I pick up the chipped mp3 player from its home in front of my parent’s wedding picture.
Sometimes Dad asks who the people are in the photograph; I tell him that he’s the groom. He doesn’t believe me; he says a woman that beautiful would never marry him.
I rub my thumb across play as I open the front door; the initial bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Strauss begin. Another of Dad’s anecdotes was that Elvis stole this opening after seeing his band.
“I don’t want to miss my cue. I’ve never missed a cue,” Dad says.
“We’ll make it,” I reply. Dad’s swing band was a vocal sensation in Nevada lounges and hotels in the sixties, they made a single and he sang with Dean Martin. Mom used to tell me she fell in love with him every night he took to a stage; she said his eyes burnt, his energy arced across the venue and he was so alive. She also made me promise to take care of him after she was gone.
Leaving the house, the evening is cool and the sky has a yellow hue like hamburger cheese. The kettle drums are building to a crescendo.
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17

Another Broken Ring Pull

You say the desert has made you thin, but that is ridiculous. You are not fooling anyone. Unless you are standing behind your construction and then, my dear, I am impressed. Of course I recognised your work straight away. You were forever fashioning your own belts and yes, that is truly up there with the best of them. And who can forget your capacity to snap a ring pull before it had popped and fulfilled its one purpose in life. I remember the first time I saw you jabbing at a can with a knife, laughing merrily as the drink fizzed out. You held the can above your head and let the liquid fountain into your mouth and it was quite the sexiest thing I had ever seen.
I hope the desert is all you hoped it would be. You always liked life spread out flat before you, nothing concealed. No nasty surprises. But I know you will be heading for those hills. You could never resist having a destination in sight.
And when you reach them you will turn your back on them and stare at the dry ocean before you, thinking those thoughts that you never let others hear.
You will think of the coast, how you always walk to the lapping waves and look out, imagining yourself the only one left alive in a world of water. Yes, I hear some of those thoughts, however well you think you hide them. We are the same, you and I.
So take a look at those hills, calculate the time it will take, then double it because you always get it wrong. The distance will be deceiving, we always say, but you march on regardless, flinching at the blisters that form, determined to reach your goal.
Yes, head for those hills, my love, and then please head on home. We are waiting for you.
18

An act of duty

I missed your death
sorry about that
but I will mark it
briefly, swiftly, while
my engine is running
on the horizon.
Before splintered wood
fells me, forces me
to face my brother.
19

TODAY

: a grave sandcastle, made
from whatever comes to hand -

gaffer-tape and special stones;
contraception; voices blown
distances; accommodation;
buttons from a uniform; a damaged icon.

Then fridges whispering “best before”,
grief; daffodils; broken crates; a spar;
the cost of love.       For a flag, on top,
a tattered can or . . . anything. A lone X

always marks the end. Night's lip-licking tide
belly-sneaks across the level sand. Again.

20

Unnameable, Grudging, Vengeful Destruction.

My daughter was home for the summer and I left it all to her. I trusted her to do the job and do it well. On that day she didn't call for my help. When I saw my sister, contorted, dashed on the cold pavement of our flat, screaming she wanted to die, repeating we were going to lock her up, that we were ill-intentioned, that if we picked up the phone to call an ambulance she would die... And she, was there, holding her, holding on, keeping her tightly in her arms, whispering, hushing, sweating, with no other expression on her face but frigid determination. I could not recognise her; she, was my daughter? She, was there, on the floor, getting hurt, stronger than ever. Would she ever forgive me?

Six shots and the sky bled invisible, caustic driblets of pain on the horizon. One! My sister. Broken and dry, nothing could patch her up. Two! My cousin. He was beginning to show the first symptoms of the illness. Three! My face. The arid personification of my life. Four! My husband. More of a nomad than ever. Five! The lurking fear: was it coming for me? Six! Not my daughter...

And the signpost read: “The Desert of the Furies”.

21

Target Practice

Like a steer's blown horn
on the deserted horizon
I see the end of your sport:

Serious, now, no bluff
the trophy lies behind.

How a blown can-
shot after shot fired
at a target-

Gaping holes in the fabric-
of a tin.

It's tied to the horn
perched bucket-blue
seducing the sun.

A wilderness's testament.

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Post image

Men tied to posts and shot, I saw them fall
like empty clothing dropped upon the floor,
in sudden silence stilled beyond recall
and justly, though misfortunate in war.
An empty can impaled upon a post
brings back the image to my inward eye.
Too empty were those heaps to hold a ghost
as empty as the wind that whistles by
a bullet-riddled can that keeps its shape
upon a post held up by strong, black tape.
23

Holding the note

It hangs as an outpost dispensing sympathy,
indolent in its accident;
bandaged up as a whipping post
      for those out of uttering,
      for those out of hearing,
      for those out of tune.

It nods to those willing to draw up;
to yoke themselves up to the unknown
where time pieces lose credibility;
where waiting just becomes.

You halted in your progress, to speak
into its innards.

Being here, you said, is not to be known;
when being denied speech like a dulled beacon
throttled in an attempt to transmit,
      is to be rejected
      by a web of wasteland
ring-fenced by a ribbing of mountains.

To look up close, you said,
      is to listen;
to be up close
      is to be heard.

24

Deification blues

It had occurred to him the week before last that his demand – no, his desire; no, his expectation – that he be idolised was getting nowhere, in a manner that particularly and cruelly mocked him, the whisper ‘no one will worship you’ drifting away into the scheming blue, while he remained steadfastly earthbound, and no closer to deification.

What made it worse was the fact that it wasn’t the sort of ambition you could discuss with anyone; it certainly wasn’t something you could bring up on a second date – the last time he’d tried that, the rattle of ice in the empty glass had, to his ears, sounded like a crack appearing in the previously unyielding land outside.

He blamed his father; of course, that’s what all the men round here did, for having the temerity to think that their sons might want to tame the wilderness, abjure the comforts and pleasures of urban living in order to prove something, the hypothesis never being made clear beyond some sort of abstraction that focused on ‘a man’ needing ‘space’ to ‘grow into’, to ‘fully realise’ who they might be – the implication being that said ‘man’ could only find this ‘space’ in an actual canyon, rather than the canyons of a city.

In his memory – and what else counted out here? – his father had only ever said one thing that was worth holding on to, delivered on a birthday instead of a present. “If you want to play at being a god, start your own religion. If you want to play at being God, become an architect.” Fortune cookie deep, sure, but it stuck.

He hammered the taped-up planks into the ground, put the can on top, and declined to think about which of his father’s truths he was now confirming.

25

Desert End

Under sparkling stars we wait and stare
Considering what might have been
Fingers dig into silky dust

Blue jeans now sprinkled with a clay
Snow that never melts, a constant
Reminder of our time under the

Watchful eyes of the moon
Leave something, anything, in this place
So we may remember our time here

When we return, whether together or alone
We’ll know this was the spot
Where our world ceased to exist

26

Puffed Up in the Desert

Looks like Clint has been this way.
Has he ever had swollen ankles? Poor man.
Lord knows, this must be Death Valley.
The map’s the wrong way round.

She’s not looking good, the fluid’s rising,
ironic in a desert. A bullet might be the solution.
Is anyone on the bus a crack shot,
or shall I holler for the Man with No Name?

I so l o n g for the city.

27

Under A Blue Sky

The thing I always want to ask is this.

“Where did you think you were going?”

I bring them out here then wait for it to happen.

It’s as if they’ve never thought about it, not until they’re standing in the middle of it.

The desert is a big place.

So big it gets inside you. Because it’s not just big. It feels big.

Expansive.

There was a guy used that very word once, like he’d practiced it. Envisaged standing under a blue sky, declaring how expansive it was. Big wasn’t good enough for him.

But even he dissolved.

Because the thing is, in the glare of the afternoon sun, it’s the white that gets you.

The light.

It shrinks perspectives.

And when you squint into the distance, all you catch is a shimmering on the horizon. A vague sense that there are things there, just beyond your reach, just beyond your gaze, that you can only feel.

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28

Lost

I wanted you to play
with dolls and prams.
You preferred your
brother’s toy guns.
On your sixth birthday you
asked for a child’s play army outfit.
Ten years later and you
were wearing a real one.

The day before you left
I tried to change your mind.
But you said, ‘those people
need our help, Mum.’
And that foreign land
snatched you from me.

No poppy fields for you
with white cross.
Your grave is lost
in a barren landscape,
but if you’re lucky
it will be marked
with a piece of wood
and perhaps an old tin can.

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