Then came the fireflies
the shade sleeps under.
The downed magnolia leaves—
brown, and gold, and pale.
Stepping through the last applause
of sunlight, it’s spent flint
sparkless and cold you hear a mockingbird
practices a song above the shoreline
where panhandlers have moved
their tents higher up the bank
into the Trees of Heaven
and Ivy. In that moment
you think of home, a childhood
of solitude. The you you remember
has no breath.
You practiced parlor tricks
that summer—cutting a deck
of cards to the hearts, floating
a dollar bill between your hands
on fishing line. You did this
at a pool where children
demand you do it again. You obliged.
For months you show them
how to deceive. One day
a boy drags his brother
to the bottom of the pool
and you jump in, lift him
to the concrete noticing how
small he felt, the smoothness of his body,
his hair gold, and pale—the azure
of his lips silent. When you breathe
into him, you taste chlorine
as the water spills over your tongue
gnats caught at the corner
of your lips. You can see his mother
crying, both hands wrapped
around the boy’s ankles. The sun
is blinding , the slugs at the edge
of the concrete are intransigent
in their slimy surf. When the boy
coughs you are speechless
as if you believed he would die.
But he does not—just comes back
or wakes up,
whatever you want to call it
makes no difference.
Weeks go by and
you learn to saw yourself in half—
to navigate two worlds at once.
In this world you begin to work
for minimum wage
plunging toilets and sweeping
grocery aisles fifty hours a week.
You carry ashes and spread
a little here and there—
the bag never feels lighter.
In the woods the wooden bridge
you’ve run across for decades
is slicked with ice—boilerplate
and clear. Near winter’s end
you always feel the knives
of your father’s fingers
just behind your ears. Whenever dogs die
they go off to be alone.
In this way you are spared.
The heart stops. The eyelids darken,
the teeth begin to burn.
You whistle and call from the front door
and are met with the snow.
You see where the footprints go out
and don’t come back.
And even now, while I’ve been counting
the hairs on the back of my hand,
as the sky closes over the city
years have unraveled under the cosmos
of my skull. Here the power is out.
At twenty-seven, branches
and shattered bottles litter the sidewalks.
Horseflies feast on a speckled egg
tossed from a nest. In the cemetery I follow my dog
up the hill passing the cenotaphs,
and headstones, the hundred foot Tulip-Poplar.
In the city he died, I am just beginning.
The herons feed in the heat,
a man and woman drag
a moldy mattress back
to their house. Dope smoke drifts
from the red tents out of the overgrowth
and tangled on the hillside. Can you also smell
honeysuckle and taste the earth drying out,
the hot asphalt and brown river?
See how the ants rush
from their colonies to pick apart the honeybee?
What will come, so routinely, to break us
little by little? Somewhere your tears harden
to glass. A boy is brought back to life, elsewhere
the air is buried for good in his lungs.
Overhead the mockingbird is calling out:
Chim chim cheer-oo!
Matthew Wimberley grew up in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He is the author of the chapbook “Snake Mountain Almanac” from Seven Kitchens Press. Winner of the Asheville Poetry Review’s 2015 William Matthews Prize, his work has appeared in Best New Poets 2016, The Greensboro Review, as the poem of the week at The Missouri Review, Narrative, Orion, Poet-Lore, Verse Daily and elsewhere.