Song (Little Bones)
—for Mark Strand
Each evening when the feathers rose above the little town the dog returned with an item for me to eat—rodent, bird, hunk of bread. I sat beside the pile of little bones, & hoped instead for something ineffable, that might show hunger & gravity as the illusions they are. Oh, Rex, the days are passing so quickly, I said, & held out my hand to stroke his fur, but he was gone again. He returned with a shiny helium balloon from a president’s grave, then a small city—the tiny people rolled around like bowling pins. Then he appeared with a kazoo in his jaws. He breathed into it as he paced the room, huffing and puffing like Lenin breathing his last. Then there was a faint rattle, like a bone in a soup can. I watched the moon rise in the lake. A few tentative notes rose within the buzzing, & the town began to disappear. Was it the sense that this song could never be repeated, the pure improvisation, the absence of repetition, that made it such a compelling refrain against ordinary routine, against the seasons, against time itself? Maybe the ineluctable might be resisted just this once, even as the night walked on its hands across the great plains. But he dropped the kazoo & turned back to his bone. I pulled a hunk of mouse hair from my mouth. At last I knew there was nothing to hold on here, or in the dark outside, or in my life. Good boy, Rex said, & patted my head. Good boy.
Why do you think it’s called a skeleton key, the man said at his little table in the unmarked canvas tent after we gave our rubles to the monkey with the tin can. He fitted the key to my fingernail & turned. The carnival disappeared as I looked inside the bone. Drifting clouds. Or waters crashing past shorelines, covering Fukushima, Lisbon, no, they were great herds migrating across the earth, two-legged, moving towards fire pits, cairns, salt licks, walled cities, herds moving towards pianos in rooms full of evening. Your rib, my femur, bleak windows. I saw Beethoven’s death mask, & a hundred bent wicks, no, the burn lines of Troy. Our mothers & fathers were just lying down beside each other as the wind carried away those prayers we had lodged between stones. And look, there’s a street in the future, you’re in your best shoes, the ones that make your heels bleed, you’re letting go of my hand, you’re turning back to our children. This is how we remembered the words to the song that had forgotten us. This is how we turned back to each other.
Mark Wagenaar is the author of the poetry collections The Body Distances and Voodoo Inverse, as well as the Saltman Prize-winning Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining, forthcoming this summer from Red Hen Press. His poetry and fiction have appeared widely, including The New Yorker, the Southern Review, and Tin House. He is a visiting assistant professor at Valparaiso University.