The Agonist Journal

Their kingdom appeared at first
like an outcropping in the sand,
a black mote on the horizon
between the blue sky and the endless dunes
split between light and shadow.
He followed the dried-out riverbed
into a valley that opened out before his feet,
a labyrinth of hills and ravines, where a crow,
hastening to ascend, let fall a morsel from its beak.
It was when he felt his sandal snapping a dried twig
that they surrounded him. Some had been waiting
in the shadows, others were hiding behind the trees,
and those he had mistaken for stones
leapt up to surround him—like a mob of spirits
roiled and agitated at the thought
of someone watching them from behind.
They were dressed in rags scoured by the earth
and worn thin by the sun, with holes
that left exposed old sores and fresh wounds
dealt by the intelligences that sting them
from the realms of light. A glance at their eyes,
though opaque and extinguished, revealed
that they had much to show him: the scars left
by the last thing they had fled.
But he was quickly overwhelmed by a flood of arms
flailing around him like dusty tentacles,
fingers pressing against his face, tensing
when they made contact with the orbital bone,
as though to avoid being burned by the light
that streamed forth from the socket toward the void
into which they had vouchsafed their sense.

                    They drew back and began to sing
in the lovely, lilting voices that the gods
had bestowed on them in exchange
for returning the flame that the titan stole.
But they grew alarmed when he stood motionless
as they spun the spider-web of their song,
into which other intruders had been glad
to fall and succumb to the blessing of being drained
by irresistible beauty. Was he in possession
of a charm, a divine gift which made him impervious
to the allure of their music? Their singing subsided
into profane murmurs, in which they agreed
to open their ranks and make a path for him
to the altar, where they could yet cast him
in the mold of their fate. They were after all
favored by the earth for their forbearance and self-control,
willingly baring themselves before tooth and claw,
beak and mandible. Would they be obliged to welcome
the stranger as they did the locusts and the lice,
relying on their patience to unravel the riddle
of his presence?

                     A shudder ran through the guest,
uncertain about what he had succeeded in concealing
from the unseeing host. He had tried to read their lips
when they sang and saw only the maws of fish
snapping impatiently at the hooks that would lift them
out of their native element. Now they blocked the way back,
leaving him no choice but to take the hand offered
by an eyeless child and follow the path to its end,
a deaf man stricken by dread over the idolatry and servitude
awaiting him in the land of the blind.
Would they make him their psychopomp,
swimming in the abysses they feared to enter,
to drown the living and come to the aid of the dead?
Or would they save for him a more consuming task,
and, once it was finished, crucify him in his sleep?
He wondered how long he could dwell among them
as a worm in the night and a god by light.
The spirit of silence came over him as if it were a shell
to shield his soul, unseduced, as it sank into its depths.