You Fell

 



by Colin Hamilton


(Strahov Monastery, Prague, 1991)

Did the table's wooden roughness slow

 

the slosh of eggs out of the shark's split belly?

 

One monk pricked his finger on a tooth.

 

When he walked out into your baroque
 
streets of winter rain, he went emboldened by

the thought: I know cold, dark monsters

 

 

of the deep. I've pricked my fingers
 
on their beast teeth and bled. There are

oceans beyond this saltless city. Since I

 

 
already knew all that, other questions
 
followed me: Who brought that shark to Prague
 

and what iced casket carried it? Who stuffed

 

 
the thing? And who, when monastery
 
became museum, mounted it in a case painted
 

with distant fish? Someone knew all

 

 
the answers, but I was just killing time,
 
keeping dry, until she, who'd gone to see
 

the human body without a soul, returned.

 
***
 
My key does a quarter turn though I'd push it further. There's something soft in the lock, something dead in your ears. I could turn away, but you're not leaving. Inside, the kitchen's lit by four blue flames. And my name, that's what you're saying from leagues underwater, which have been compressed and sweetened into a bottle of rum.
 
You greet me then my family. I ask about your health. It's the same: worse. To explain, you hit your chest four times, scoring out the attacks that haven't killed you, rap a fist to skull twice. That makes you smile and propose a toast. You show me your pills and say what each one costs. You're spitting with anger.
 
***
 
What makes you angry is me nodding my head and not understanding. I nod, you shake yours. A huge hand swats me away. There's a story being told and I should listen. Once, you were like me. That was in Germany. You show your teeth.
 
It wasn't all bad. There were women. You count. French. Dutch. Russian. Hungarian. Ukrainian. Polish. I should have known you then.
 
Sometimes there will be a woman with me. She's like a gift of years, though you'll age back through them in an hour. Then all that's left are the stories. This one is about your children. Not Dasha, but the others you've never met. Maybe 200 of them you suggest. You laugh your only laugh. French. Dutch. Polish. Italian. Ukrainian. Russian. Soon your fingers will be too thick to count on.
 
***
 
I want, she kept repeating, to tell you
 
better, but she didn't have the words. When
 

the doctors, they cut him. It was so loud.

 

 
It was-I thought he would wake. But,
 
no, everything was gone. Just a body there,
 

not sleeping. He had no face, or,

 

 
his face, it could not speak. Not speak.
 
Had rigor mortis set in? Yes, they
 

broke his arms to open him.

 

 
Sometimes, with you, I feel
 
myself hardening.
 

(This angered her.)

 
***
 
In the story, your shoulders hunch and your fingers spread. Once you've looked both ways, they become fists you can run with.
 
In the story, everyone dies. Your parents, your friends. Your wife, though it took twenty years to waste her. One morning I thought you'd die, but I uncorked the bottle in time. That night, after I watched you tumble back into the bathroom, heard the smack of skull on porcelain, saw the blood, saw you climb up out of it, I started thinking nothing would kill you. I started thinking there must be a second, smaller heart lodged beneath your ribs, a lump of liquor and fat, blackened by coal, which has only begun to beat.
 
***
 
What is the story of failure? Something
 
about your father in a gothic cellar,
 

in a chalked circle, candles of course,

 

 
whipping a dog to death while an imported
 
astrologer cheered him on. What had he put
 

inside that dog? It hardly matters. So he killed

 

 
a dog. This city lets you. It let me
 
follow her. Where she went, the scripted
 

stones did jut from the ground like broken

 
 
 
teeth, and she kept calling it a mouth
 
a mouth. She felt each push of wind,
 

but didn't want to be touched by me.

 

 
 
Something about you, not drying the drink
 
you've spilled on your lap, spilling
 

your stories to a stranger you want to call

 

 
son, a stranger who could hardly
 
understand the words you're saying, even
 

when your lips were moving with them.

 
***
 
Before you leave, I give you the American stamps. You told me they're for your grandson, but you put your glasses on. They're the first thing you've seen all day.
 
Sometimes before you go you like to confess. Maybe the women you loved while your wife was dying. Something about the hotel where you took them. Once you told me you'd been the chief homicide detective in the entire country. It was a strange story, and I missed many of the details: a train to Bratislava, a body without its head, some Gypsies, a letter. It frightened you to tell me, but maybe that was your only way to make it true.
 
***
Your city spirals: tower, arch, smoke and
 
flag. Your cobbled streets buckle as though
 

those stones, if loosened, would ascend.

 

 
Even the Atlases-bearded, brawny men,
 
waist-tapered and taut, arched in doorways
 

and under columns-shove this city skyward.

 

 
At dusk as day and people fade, I've strayed
 
with the half-hope a Titan would offer me
 

its load.The press of stone does tempt: to hold,

 

 
to be that monk, her lover, your child or the one
 
who returns. But the weight dizzies. Look
 

down: There, in the puddled streetlights

 

 
shattering in the rain, see how
 
they laid one constellation after another upon you
 

until, destiny-draped and gaudy,

 

 
you fell.

 

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