Man in a landscape, Willem Witsen, c. 1887 - c. 1897

My mother is unlearning the way to walk;
             feels her hand with her other hand,
             then drags her cheeks flat in the mirror
                           to smooth her frightened face.

Her mother asks Are you disappointed?
             but means groceries and bruised fruit, rain,
                          the film about men killing men for men,
                                       which got such good reviews.

She slips a brick of blue ice between her brace and back,
                                        trying to dull the twinge of life
                                                                  going on without her.

Fewer gladiators died in the ring than you might think:
That would have ruined the show. These were celebrities.
Most died elsewhere, commonly, just going about their lives.

And so, when a trainwreck caught fire in 1918
             it killed 56 or 61 or 86 performers.
                          Five elephants were scorched alive
                                      howling in their cages.

The train had stopped for maintenance,
              flagmen waving at the dark. 
              The other train was empty,
              just a sleeping engineer
                           because phantom rides grow dull:
                                        all track and moving night,
                                        moths diving headfirst at the headlight
                                                                    pushing through the dark.
                                                                    He didn’t see the flares
                                                                    because our dreams are limitless.

With dawn they saw their twisted luck:
They’d wrecked inside a boneyard.
Sometimes you take what little you can get.

The dead people were easy;
many from nowhere or hired days before
              and so their graves were nameless.

But this life gives us,
              the way cameras vex the dead,
                           problems we hadn’t thought of.

And so the question became what to do with the elephants:
They lay like stunted pyres in their place by twisted spur.

One man says to cut them into pieces.
Another says to keep them burning
              till they are swept away.
                           Instead, they start to dig,
                           making hills that rise above them.

Let me tell you this:
Men come with rope to pull the piles.
They heave backward in ordered bursts.
                           The loops of rope burn lines
                                                      into their hands.

It looks from far like a performance.

They cover the elephants with hills they made,
             chests pressed blue by time like glaciers.

Are you not entertained?
I remember my mother filling bowls like this, pulling grapes from stems.
To die well, the gladiators thought, we must never ask for mercy.

And so: Tired shovel men tamp smooth the ground,
                                                      pat the earth up and down
                                                                     as if their shovels too
                                                                                   are saying Yes.

Michael Hurley

Michael Hurley is from Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Cincinnati Review, Spillway, Sugar House Review, The Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Lake Effect, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review, FIELD, Blackbird, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Wooden Boys, is available from Seven Kitchens Press.