The Song

My father lies upon his bed in afternoon sun
Hands on stomach, fingers splayed as if still holding the oboe
Eyes closed, chest rattling his coda of half notes and half rests.

A year on, and my son sits in his cafeteria,
Holds the euphonium, breathes his first note.
Is that his own breath in that brass,
Or is he some new mouthpiece of my father,
Invisibly tweaking his embouchure
Adjusting his posture
Dilating his airway
That the Song might go on
Another verse if not forever?

And does my son hear the ancestral call
Of Wagner, fox hunt, shofar, didgeridoo
Back and back and back to the first
Who stood clad in the ram’s hide on a hilltop
And blew through something louder than his throat,
That the stars might know
We are here.



The Body Washer

He came at first, dagger in robe:
I wish to see the Prisoner!
The Prisoner sent the answer then:
First cast aside your cloaked weapon
Retreating, he is unnerved.

When next he came, one-man jihad
His meaty hands were flexed
To silence that One’s profane voice
He felt he hadn’t any choice
His mind was still perplexed

Again he hailed the prison guard:
“I wish to see the inmate!”
The Prisoner sent the answer out:
First purify your heart throughout.
Again he’d have to wait.

He wandered through the dusty streets
Bewildered and confused
Wondering what magic this
Jailed Heretic could yet possess
To know his subterfuge.

At home, he slept now sound as stone.
The dream came swift and vivid.
And it replayed an episode
And memories from his boyhood flowed
Of a shaykh who’d paid a visit.

“When you are grown” the shaykh had said,
“Watch for the Promised One!
Listen for a Persian tongue
From One atop a stair so long!”
He woke, his hatred gone.

When next he came, his hands and heart
Were cleansed but both atremble.
“I wish to see the prisoner.”
The answer from the cell up there:
Allow him now this temple.

Through the gate he saw the stair
Ascended it and entered
And when their eyes met in that hall
He fell face-down, a helpless thrall
His universe now centered

When last he came his hands got wet
Not with the blood of hatred
But holy water flowed instead,
The Prisoner, years on, was dead
He would perform the sacred.

He wet the cloth, began to wash,
Tears streaming down his face.
How could a vile assassin be
Assigned a duty this lofty?
The miracle of grace.

The Master’s Mule

One night
After months of rocky sharp steps
Under Iraqi sun and Ottoman moon
I plodded at the rear
Of the caravan of the red roan.

The pines came ever thicker,
Until their needles combed away
The Anatolian moonlight
And ink drowned my beacon,
The white fez of my Master ahead,
Now one with His wavy black locks.

Distracted, fatigued,
Attracted by a patch of weeds
Or the gurgle of a nearby stream
My tall ears did not even glean
That the crunch of hooves
And Turkish murmurs
And Persian chants had faded
To only the rustle of needles and cones
In a summer night breeze.

Off the trail, I paced the dark
And brushed the bark
With bulky saddlebags.

I drank my fill from a high stream
And stood altogether unaware
I’d defected from that team,
And I stood in silence.

Far under hoof, and near the antipode,
I heard with these tall ears
The whinnies at Gettysburg
Of other equine servants,
Splattered from above in the blood of other masters
Doing their best to tear this world apart
With rifle and sword and the name of the Lord
As fast as Master can put it together.
The antipodes of heart.

I was drinking from the stream as first light came,
And felt a hand upon my rein.
I turned to look, flattened my ears
And it was Him —
His gentle eyes, much older
Than His nineteen years,
A warm wide smile
Set off by a short black beard.
No scolding. No angry blows.
Only a warm hand on my neck.
And another on my nose.

For when He’d noticed I was absent
He’d alerted the warden-escort,
Who assured Him in a Turkish accent
Nothing lost in a thicket of this sort
Could ever be found.

But I carried something on my back,
Something I never really knew —
Papers in a box,
And other objects too.
Was it these or me for which He grieved the loss?

With permission
He had ridden out into the blackest night.
Whoever finds him first, He said,
Call out, or tell with firelight.

* * *

The sun was high over the land,
When we rejoined the caravan.
Cries of joy went up, and I stood a little taller,
When the search party led me in.

They rushed toward my saddlebags
Loaded them onto forward nags.
It was the boxes for which they longed,
Not me, I thought.
I hung my head and plodded on.

Just then I felt that hand again.
And it was Him now walking near,
Whispering in my tall ear
A gentle word, a loving tone.
He chose to join me at the rear
Of the caravan of the red roan.

–Ridvan 2009