By Lauren K. Alleyne
It begins with light. A struck match. Spark. Flame. The pyre becomes a house of fire and I, its lone inhabitant. I imagined death to be a swift thing, child that I was—the scythe of the reaper lopping off the head; the soul rising like steam from a cup of hot tea. I didn’t know then, how the soul clings to the body like a lover, as my mother clings now to my father—a desperate, clutching embrace. Like his, my body is still and unmoving; it ignores my cajoling. I have no power there. The flames begin at my feet (oh, no longer my feet, but feet, unpossessed) make stumpy tapers of my toes.
Hymns swirl around me like the piney, corpse-y smoke, their melodies tugging me gently away from the stiff meat of my former self. Sweet body, forgive me. I bore you so many petty hatreds—Ugly, I said. Dirty and weak. And yet, here is death, making such brief beauty of you. Beloved anchor, old friend. Now the flames flutter along your skin, my story scarred into its geography and held to the end. Layer by layer, I have less and less to cling to.
I, too, am disappearing. Mother falls to her knees and wails, sounds I want to pull from her throat like a magician’s handkerchief, and return to her as a bouquet of rivers. My father is a rock against which the waves of her grief break again and again. I want to tremor him like an earthquake and crumble him to sand, as my body (so much less body, less and less, mine) collapses into itself. There, the heart in its smoky chapel of ribs. I had thought it broken, but there it sits, still and full as prayer.
The music is more insistent now, the drums like a pulse for the dead, the voices my only breath. Not yet, not yet. Dark flower. Earthroot. Body, I am awaiting your final secret. You have no face, your limbs are flayed to smoldering bone, but you are not empty, and though no more than a whisper, I am not yet gone. There, your final treasure: The womb’s dark blue sack, where the little fish lies. Mother, even as a mouthful of smoke, I know your ache. Little one, you are the last note, the hymn’s low Amen. Here, I rise into singing. Here, I nothing. There, the final fall to ash.
Lauren K. Alleyne is an assistant professor of English and the Poet-in-Residence at the University of Dubuque. Her essays and poems have been published in several journals and anthologies including: The Crab Orchard Review, Black Arts Quarterly, The Caribbean Writers, and The Cimarron Review, among others. Her work has been awarded an Atlantic Monthly Student Poetry Award, The Small Axe Literary Review Prize, two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg awards, and a Lyric Iowa prize. She is a Cave Canem fellow. She is finally dipping her toes into fiction!
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