Issue 131, Summer 1994
Pewter, then silver, the palest gold, an almost
silence we almost could hear, dawn led us out.
So light a sound had lifted us from our pillows.
And to hear it clearer, there at the end
of our hearing where it licked at our ears,
we crept softly away from the sleeping town.
What was it singing, ringing, piping, saying?
One more, one step more, and all that we always
were overhearing at last would speak to us
— where the world, whispering whispering, was.
Like a reed, hollow green tender heaven-high,
he played, and the world sang out of his mouth
in flowers; crocus and columbine and daisy
and rose the iris the lilac the lily blew
and scattered and flew, arrows we chased after
in the light in the wind into the world
until we had no names left to call them only
our shouts and cries that burst from his mouth and bloomed.
The stones in the road clattered and clay laughed.
We are little children. Our parents say.
And everything happens. Sun brightens the sky.
We play. They call us in to supper. We sleep.
We wake to promises they made to us.
Today we’ll visit Auntie. Tomorrow we pick
flowers in the field. One day, we shall go to school.
And always through the porridges and pennies,
the playthings and pettings, a question scurries
out of sight down small black holes in our dreams.
What do they need us for? What use are children?
—so easy to overlook and leave behind,
too weak to draw a dogcart up a hill,
who own nothing, to whom nothing is owed.
Let them say they wanted us, we don’t believe
in grown-ups’ love, but in the mercy of their whims.
We knew the sweetness of power, it knew us.
The road coursed along, coursed through us, like song,
smoothing our way. All the words in the world, every
thing, all that our parents held aloof, became
the tune’s single word. Because we had nothing,
we who had nothing else, now had the word.
We were his children, and he was our champion.
And so we followed him, column and tongue
of sunshine and sound, of revelation,
to know how high how deep how far life could lead.
And nothing nothing resisted our song.
A mile or two gone by and we understood
the one we followed in the golden tatters and
the green patches of a roaming tree, he knew,
though it was strange and jolly, a single tune
he piped to himself alone over and over
—lonely as we should be had we never been born.
How sad for him—his only playmate was a song!
And so we trooped along and kept him company,
and knew then that not everything is made clear:
secret within each secret a darkness keeps mum.
On the last hill we looked back a last time,
and saw a town shining beside its silver stream.
So that was our village, where we’d always been!
See, we exclaimed to ourselves, to each other,
there in the tiny streets, those little people
so much smaller than we are, those must be
our parents—just see them circle and stamp
their heavy feet as if battering down the dirt
of a grave into place. And spring aloft again!
Look, their heavy pockets are leaping up, too!
Are they dancing their dismay, having seen us
go marching away? Or skipping about in joy
since we are all the little coin they had to pay?
Look now! like living things the gold swollen
inside their pockets grows bigger as they leap!
Within a wall of wind a well of water rose
enclosing a void where one unbearable noise
was a crowd of voices roaring all at once.
The dark tongue drew us up into its song.
And there we floated while the sweetest voice sang,
“Only you can save them—say you will save them!
Even now they think of you and say, ‘We were deaf,
heard nothing, not the piping, or the patter and
chatter of our babies leaving, going away,
and kept our coins because we were afraid to die.
They knew better than we the right way to live.
We’ll follow our children and be like children, too’
—for what you left behind you gave away,
and what you shall refuse to claim is more and more
abundance you bestow. A world so abounding
is a world of innocence and a world
without death.” Oh yes, we will, we shouted,
but tell us, How much must we give away?
“Everything,” the voice sang, “everything. And yourselves.
And at the last you yourselves will be given,”
sang the voice fading, letting us down, “away.”
Mouth a darkness, pipe a cracked bone wheezing
bloody spittle to the ground his back was that bent
down, mound of rotting rags like a walking grave
— an old man led us, piping himself into
the earth, and we his raggle-taggle funeral.
Helpless, compelled, we clung to his suffering,
knowing a thing so horrible must be holy.
Sometimes, wanted to comfort, and dared not touch;
sometimes, tootled on our toy pipes to please him;
or ran ahead, howling, taunting, Old man! Old man!
Catch us if you can! — adding our children’s mite to
whatever power it was had marked him for its own
and danced a mad jig now on his miserable flesh.
Life could lead as far as deep as he had crept
—then left him good as dead, and still he lived:
Complete. Real. Past help, hurting. Alone. Accursed.
Powerful with what rejoiced, destroying him.
From this final milepost every step must start.
We vowed to carry him with us everywhere
we went, and felt on our heads blessing descend.
Suddenly the pipe was still, piper was gone.
In the place of his mouth a river squirmed, squealed
— one endless rat of one million rats drowning and drowned:
Rat River, cobbled with sleek rat backs
and wet rat bellies, where little rat feet slipped,
and caught in the thatch of rat whiskers and tails.
Black bubbles boiled up gleaming and looked at us.
White foam raged and gnawed at the night for breath.
Abandoned by music, and frightened to death by death,
then and there we’d have turned and run home,
but the wind at our backs brought us happy sounds
of children who scraped our bowls and rolled our hoops
and called our pets—laughing, golden children grown
from gold coins our parents hoarded when we left.
“You can, you can, come over here,come over here,
if you are light enough, slight enough, faint enough . . .”
little voices were calling out, and calling out
from over the squealing river, “I’m lonely here!”
— runaway children, abandoned and lost children,
stolen children, and strays, and foundlings, and poor waifs
sold to be someone’s slaves were calling out to us;
and the ghost children we children would never have
from the distant shore were singing, “Please play with me!”
But when we crossed to them, we found no place at all,
no children there, but voices saying, voices singing,
“You can, you can, be music too, be music too,
forever, and forevermore.” And so, and so, we were.
If on a summer’s night, unable to sleep,
you throw open a window to the starry sky,
and the softest air from far of enters your head,
and life is wide with possibility again,
before returning to the sweetness of your bed
and the charmed oblivion of your dreaming,
remember us lost on night’s farthest shore,
and linger on a little while at your window
to hum, though faint and broken, this story you hear.
Buy yourself back, father, mother, you can,
you can,for the price of a song, you can,
from death—and take us in, feel us, feel
us, give us a home here in your breath!