by Jonathan DeCoteau 

Steel Prophet

The split-second cleaving of foliage—gaunt
From the haunches of marauding night—
peeks through, with lead-tongued panting
And black crescent eyes:
It is a baby deer made manifest before me
As I set my steel sites for the hunt.
Surrounded as I am by lighted misery
taken from time and thrown claylike against eternity,
stretching the bulbous moment of my nine-year-old life
out until it wrangles and bleeds—
The thick paste of dawn is a but a thin line circumnavigating my gun
As my fingers press ever so slightly—
And then freeze.

All about me are dun, twisting sequoia and the dinge of sodden dungarees;
Vines wrapping around, like the misshapen mouths of green gods of ivy,
That speak neither to the fawn nor to me;
The nascent breath of the fugitive baby,
copulating with the fat heaving of killers
All thrown up like aging milk,
Only to splatter, in thick, petulant globs,
the moment that sours beside me.
Shoot, shoot, the killers chant,
A word too naked to the touch for its primeval finality.
Still I crouch; still my fingers dance on the trigger;
Still they freeze.

I hear and do not hear
See and do not see
For words are not eyes,
pale and translucent as they rob first light,
of its pink vitality—
they cannot say, as blood can,
Please do not take everything I am away from me.
A yearling’s eyes are worth all the words of the prophets
When they stare in absolute vulnerability
When I crouch, my face sweaty and half-obscure,
Holding a steel prophet in my hands
That points oracle-like from
This Delphi of shale and granite
As if imparting a mute god’s decree.
Perhaps Neanderthals once stood by the same rock formation,
Sanguine spears slung about their navels
Their faces painted in the dry clay of necessity,
Chanting some lost guttural cry,
To gods both profound and bloodthirsty—
A call to the kill—
That now fills me.

But the fawn is not guttural
As it stands frozen in its own moment of pale impossibility.
There is shaking of crook and limb, the throbbing of artery,
A slight, scurrying sneeze
As its semi-spherical black eyes, lit by the same sun that nourishes me,
Search dark and light
for hidden figures scrambling circuitously.
For a moment, the yearling’s eyes leave me—
It has spotted its family—
And I shoot, God help me.
The fawn crumples at the thunder more than falls,
Its flesh,
Like its blood,
Indistinguishable from the mass of dawn and soil—
Spilling into the mouth of a long-dead tree.
And the cheers, oh, yes—
You got him!  You’re a man!—
Even then they shoot at me
As my crouch too becomes a crumple
Of newly minted misery,
My smoky prophet by my side
As I smile—yes, smile—crookedly,
like a Zapotec priest holding
a beating heart before the sun-cracked stairs
Of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan.

But death is not neat,
A flight of breath,
A wavering of limb, or
a simple extinguishing of the eyes—
it is predatory,
and it was not done with me.
The baby deer cried, yes cried—
As it saw its own spindly legs
unable to spindle the shale and rise,
as it saw the sinewy pink of its insides spilling viscously,
as it defecated, and saw that it defecated,
and heard its mother’s cry too late
to appease its misery,
lying its red-tufted head down
in the mess of red, white, and brown
caused by me, while
my father and his camouflaged buddies
jumped, hooted, and hollered
like Pan wrapped in hairy black goatskin
ravishing Selene—
so they stood before the cadaver,
breaking beers over me,
unmoved by the unholy.

And to this day,
That steel prophet speaks to me
Whenever I hear news of a kid gunned down in a park
Or see the senseless killing of a mother and child—
The image of that baby deer is ever before me
As I ask the killer that is me
what it is to be a man:
To be jumping and celebratory,
Wielding the prophet’s power,
Or to be shuddering and holy.
And always in answer I see the baby deer
Crumple and fall,
Its eyes on mine
Trying to remind me of the humanity I lost that day
I went for the kill.

The Sibylline

Twirling, then flopping—
Like an Erythraein Sibyl
Weighed down by the
Animus of redemption
Whispering of some new sacking of Troy,
Or the lies some blinder Homer might tell.
Such are her fingers fleshly extending,
then redacting—
As if trying to hold the curved edge of the universe
Upon the cheaply wrought glass
of a lusterless orbuculum.

Her eyes do a little dance to mirror her fingers—
Half of fire,
Half of wind—
With purple beads and tea leaves:
the performance hits its rising action.
You come here today seeking answers, she says,
Mumbling arcana in solemn baritone—
And (at first) I whisper not a wisp of a word—
Because you have questions about your future, she insists—
One line less, and it might fit on a company card.
She throws her square monstrosities down
—some skulled knights riding unnaturally white horses,
Others star-squashed nymphs ladling with cupped hands
Into a pool that never quite illuminates or transcends.
My emotions stir like the nymph’s eternal grasp—
This sibyl goes on; she speaks of traumatic life change
Since the past or present clearly will not do.
An old lover will rise Aphrodite-like from the foam
Blown to the flowering seasons of my life, who dance Bacchus-like and celebrate
Her great beauty as my own.
And money—of course there’s money—so much more to be had,
It falls like Asiaq sending rain to melt the ice
Of some poor Inuit trapped in tundra.

My words also twirl and flop—the performance is not all her own,
As I open up; I wonder too audibly if this person or that person will do well,
Asking myself whether or not, like that sibyl at Ethryae, my oracle will arrange
the tea leaf letters so that they form a word.
She listens, repeating this or that person’s name and drawing out each phonetic variation—
And I smile to think that so much of my hourly rate is spent on pronunciation.
Together we agree that I am indeed a more special man the seven others she’s seen that day,
destined for more than a life spent scraping mud from the sides of graves
and for a brief moment I feel stupid and ashamed:
images of the Macedonian Alexander come to mind,
as he drags the oracle Pythia by her exalted hair
until she screams “Leave me alone.  You are invincible!”

I reassure myself and smile as a ringer chimes and right on cue the departed spirit of
my unknown (starts with an “A”) great-great aunt goes on sabbatical
and my sibyl heaves and froths, so ill-used is she by Pythian gods,
until she returns to the plane of us mortals and takes back her fallen cards.
I thank her and head out, leaving money as a man of lesser destiny might to a whore,
Marveling to think that the hubris of Alexander is alive and well.
Refreshed by a future now rendered in concrete,
I think nothing of how
Two days later, a plane hit the Twin Towers
And the world as I know it shatters in hammering flame.

Singing at the Elmswood Nursing Home, November, 1986

Leftover notes fall, shattering like the cracking azure
nail polish of Mrs. Dulcey’s extended
index finger. Its loose skin
hangs like her tubular pink lucite
purse as she ushers the cavalcade of accidentals along, (A hoarse
G-sharp here, a soft E-flat there), like tumbling infants.

Half-warmed up, our well-meaning church choir is a many-shaped
elephantine body wrangling for position as
Mrs. Dulcey sits, breathing forced tranquility, closing
the wrinkles that take the place of her eyes, to see
memory when it is only sound.
Was blind but now I see, we sing paradoxically, but Mrs. Dulcey
starts babbling Jimmy used to sing to me.

Her giant red ears are a gaudy museum of skin, wax, and wart
That will never hear the arid laughs of a pre-recession ’87.
Floating somewhere between sound and memory
Are the cacophonous echoes of another ‘86, when her Jimmy was just a knickered child.
The Earth shall soon dissolve like snow, she sings—
Lyrics that changed over a century ago.
That’s the only line she remembers, and she shifts again to
The Barouche Open-Air carriage where she says, the little bugger put his lips on me
Before nodding off, slumping into a befuddled snore.

That second, we sing, too softly, I once was lost but
Mrs. Dulcey is still in her beech and elm-wheeled carriage,
Singing herself back, with each turn of the spoke, from 1896 to 1882 or thereabouts
When lusty grasshoppers first put hind leg to forewing
And white ocean was born in a bath of sky, cloud and pickled dew.
Will forever be mine we sing, shifting to the song Mrs. Dulcey knew
Before our elephantine circle breaks, our words dissolve into rhythmic breaths
And silence taps Mrs. Dulcey on the shoulder,
the picture of sound, like Jimmy, eaten by her lingering eyes.

About the Author:


Jonathan DeCoteau is the author of The Naked Earth, named 2008 Fiction Book of the Year by The Online Journal of News and Current Affairs.  His work has been published in Jewish Fiction, Longshot Island Magazine, Literally Stories, Reader’s Quarterly, Farther Horizons Than These, and Far Horizons.