Monday, March 20, 2017

KNIVES

by Alfred D. Byrd

I am a ghost, a spirit in pain
From a knife of steel that stabbed my heart,
From knives of lies that severed my trust
In kin and friends in a time of tests.
The knives alone remain in my mind;
The knives and darkness of night compose
My world, and no name will come to me
To tell me what task I’ve left undone
To earn my status of ghost tonight.
My name and station in life are blanks
In a mind that knows no more than fear
Of lacking knowledge, being alone.

A name is spoken! I hear and see
Inside a room containing a bed
Bespread with silk and shadowed with drapes.
Upon the bed is a man who sleeps
A sleep that will end, or one that won’t,
And I, poor ghost, should know how he sleeps,
And don’t, and will the sleeper to wake.

He stays asleep, but others are up
To pierce with knives the ghost above them.
“He seems to me too young to have died,”
A voice I know is saying, “and still
I know how often the knife will claim
A life before its end in nature.”

“You’re young to have such knowledge, Byron,”
A woman replies to him in tones
That thrill my ears and heart with knowledge
Of ties of kinship proclaimed, but shunned.
Who shunned them? I ask. Was she or I
The one who denied the ties of birth?
She pauses, then speaks a truth I knew:
“But one who grows to manhood as prince,
Or prince’s comrade, must know such grief.
My son was lucky to have a friend
Who knew his heart and mind, but loved him.”

“My son!” The woman beside the bed
Had been my mother before my death,
And now I know the body she mourns
As mine, and I look at it for signs
Of what and who has wrought its murder.
The body reveals to me no trace
Of the knives that cut its life away,
And I am thankful for arts of death
That make my corpse alive, but asleep.
I seem — my body appears — to rest
In hope of waking to light and joy,
But I, who hover above the bed,
Can savor neither blessing unless
I learn the cause and causer of death
That makes me observe the form of peace
With eyes, no eyes, that can see no peace.

My mother still speaks. She tells my friend,
“Of this death, my son cut off too young,
No man has told his father, the king,
Nor will, to keep his hours of dying
Unmarred by mourning the son he loved.
My husband may think, as life declines,
His line secure, and enter darkness
In hope of light from his loins to hold,
In the years to come, his throne in peace.”

A prince! I was a prince of the realm,
The prince intended to wear its crown.
The words my mother has said are knives
That tear my heart with the pain of loss
Of honor from lips that sing my praise,
Of power of life and death to wield.
I feel a crown encircle my brow
With gold of might, with gold of deceit--
The might, a thing of outward display;
Deceit, the knowledge of smiles and lies
From those who followed my steps for gain.

Too late I recall a loss more deep
Than loss of wealth or honor or praise:
My father dying! It seems to me
I had learned the news of loss to come
And rushed to reach his bedside in time
To gain his blessing, to do the right,
To win the praise of a son who showed
His father honor at end of days.
Before I reached him, the knife had struck,
And son preceded father in death.

Above the bed my body lies on,
Its spirit wonders who held the blade
That cut away the crown from my brow.
I had my share of foes, I recall,
A host of foes I had touched with pain
In my greed to hold a land in bonds,
But I fear the hand that held the blade
To be one of love, at least in show:
The hand of one I trusted in life
As much as trust resided in me.
I dare not reflect just now on why
I think of traitors and see myself.
Disturbed at heart by thoughts of treason,
I ask myself my causes to think
Of friends betraying my life to death,
And seek within and without the words
To give my killer at least a name.

“Your husband, my queen,” my friend replies
To her whose womb had shaped my body,
“Had pinned his hopes on his son to keep
His kingdom peaceful in times to come.
He saw his heir as a man of strength
With wisdom to chart the course ahead
And guide the people with love to right.”

My mother chuckles a sound of pain.
“My husband was blind. He saw his son,
A child of dotage, as what he wished,
A sage who held the mind of his sire,
And not the monster my womb had bred.
Can you, the friend of my son, now lost,
Deny the truth I have told of him?”

A monster! The word disturbs my heart,
But my mouth can speak no word to turn
To lie the name my mother gives me.
Byron, the friend who loved me in life,
Is silent also, spurning the chance
To spare my name from slander or spite.
Am I a ghost to hear my nature
Described in terms of loathing and fear
By those from whom I should hear of love?

Byron shivers. “The truth you proclaim
Is one no mother would want to hear
About her son. A monster he was,
Pleasant in jest if given his way,
If offered his due as first in place,
But swift to resent a ‘no’ or ‘wait’
To plans of his that would harm his cause
By making others see him as vile.
In time, my friend would have been the death
Of any who dared oppose his will,
And some will rejoice to see his end.
He was, however, the last to wear
The name of prince within the kingdom.
As soon as death shall claim your husband,
The land will lack an heir to its throne,
And blood will fill its streets far deeper
Than he, at worst, would have stained the realm.
For all his faults, his reign would have been
Less grim by far than chaos to come.”

How great a tribute my friend has paid
To one whose tongue can answer no charge
A realm, his kin, have laid against him!
I feel the anger, the spate of rage
That had been my strength in life, my bane.
I know, removed from the lures of life,
Its passions, quickly aroused and fed,
The truth of the charge my friend has made,
And I mourn the loss of time to mend
My ways and the pain those ways have bred.
Less grim than chaos! I hear the best
To be said in truth of me in death,
In which the tongues of lackeys need fear
No more the wrath that made them simper
To seek my praise and flee my curses.
My life was false, but my death bequeaths
My land no peace in freedom from me.
To hear the choice I gave my people,
Oppression, or streets defiled with blood—
Is this the task of the ghost I am?
If so, what word can release the ghost,
From hearing its doom, to realms of peace?

No word is spoken beside the bed
On which my body is laid in state.
My mother regards my corpse with eyes
That hold no tears, but seem more haunted
Than I myself have made the chamber.
Byron, silent, offers my mother
A hand in solace for loss of son,
For loss of husband, for loss of dreams,
And I begrudge the gesture he makes,
But know it truthful, as mine was not,
To seek my father before his death.
Indeed, my friend has known no mother,
His own having died upon his birth,
And I, for once the doer of right,
Received my friend as brother, though one
I bullied to make my will his own.
My mother offers Byron her gaze
And gives him a smile that speaks of pain,
A pain commingled with love and hope
For one more son than her son had been.
I see at last a truth I denied
In a life in which my name was praised,
The truth of a friend more loved than me
For virtues he had, but I disdained.

My mother moistens her lips and speaks.
“The chaos you fear need not arrive.
A plan was made — I speak of my shame,
But truth must come for peace to follow.
The barons who served the king in truth
Were filled with fear of his son as king,
But knew his father too filled with faith
In his son to hear the plan and nod.
They came to me in secret at night
And spoke of their plan, their lives at risk
If met by me as mother, not queen.
They found me willing to bear my pain
To save a kingdom my womb had cursed.”

My friend seems stricken. “My queen, your words,
If taken as said, must place your hand
Upon the hilt of the knife that claimed
The life of your son. Is what you say
Confession of guilt, or words of grief?”

His question is mine. Was I so vile,
So filled with spite my mother was forced
To direct my death for the good of all?

“Your question, Byron, divides a truth
Revealed as single to eyes that see.
My guilt and my grief are one at root.
My tongue consented to kill my son
And do my duty in days ahead.
My hand, however, has held no knife,
But given its hilt to hands more skilled
In taking of life than mine could be.
The barons drew straws, and he who lost
Was he who sent my son to his death.”

Is he who held the blade a hero,
I wonder, drifting above my corpse,
Or doomed, condemned to death for a deed
The world would praise if it heard the words
My mother has said to bare my sins
To herself, my friend, and me, unseen,
But held to earth by ties of sorrow?

<>Byron murmurs, “The baron did well
The work you gave him, but got as pay
The coin of traitors, a death of shame.
He stood, his hand defiled with blood,
As still and silent as wood or stone,
And let the guards who found him guilty
Harrow his life away from his flesh.
No man will praise his act of courage,
At least in open, in times to come.
How few could show such courage, to kill
And be killed, knowing one’s fate to be
Reviled and scorned by all as traitor.
Have you, my lady, told me the truth
So that one, at least, may praise his deed,
At least in secret? But who can praise
An act that will drench the land in blood?
No prince will take the throne, and his lack
Will make this act of courage folly
Unless some knowledge hidden from me
Reveals the land a path to safety.”

My mother chuckles again. “My son
Chose well his friend, and I will follow
His choice in telling his friend the truth.
Your questions, Byron, are linked, and have
One answer, holding the key to peace.
I tell you the truth because I must
Make known to him who will wear someday
The crown of kings how it reached his head.
Your father, Byron, widowed long years
By your birth, which sent his wife to death—
Your father, tireless to serve the realm,
Perhaps to dull his grief for his wife,
Will marry the queen to wield her crown
And win his son the status of prince.
Your fate, as friend of my son, will be
To undo the deeds that won your friend
The sentence of death, and found a line
Of kings who will rule in peace and truth—”

My friend is shaken, hearing the news
The queen has told him. “Your words are strange!
I wanted no crown, and least my friend’s!
I feel unworthy to take his place
Upon the throne. Cannot another,
No ghoul who feeds on flesh of comrade,
Assume his place more cleanly than I?”

My mother, shaking her head, is firm.
“The trait, reluctance, with which you greet
The news of honor unsought and grave
Is best assurance you are the man
Who ought to receive the crown you dread.
The soul who hungers for fame and might
Will wield it only to gain his ends;
The one upon whom a throne is thrust
As a task unsought that must be done
Will do his duty through tears and joy.
The people need you, Byron, today
To stand beside your father and me
And give the land its promise of peace.
The dawn is breaking! It’s time to go.
We’ve mourned my son through years of his fall
And sat beside him a night of wake.
Today let’s do the work that was his
And honor his choice of you as friend,
The choice of God of me as mother,
By serving his land as he could not.
My son, who take the place of my son,
Your path is set before you. Walk it!”

A queen and a prince arise, and leave
A ghost alone to face the daybreak.
Its light reveals to me my evil
As something I loved upon the earth,
As something I loathe, released from life.
I wish I could do my part to heal
The wounds my hands have made in my land.
Others will have to perform my task,
And I must cede them honor and might.
I wish I could stand beside my father
And hold his hand in his hour of death.
My friends will have to do my duty,
Sending him onward with rites of love.
I ask a boon of what has made me
A ghost, instructed in lies and truth:
Allow my father, released from life,
To see his son, released from his sin,
Redeem the chance to show his father
Honor that seeks no reward but love.
I ask for mother and friend to find
The strength to carry their work, once mine,
To the end they seek. Their task is harsh,
The burden of slaves to life on earth,
And I no longer envy or scorn
The lot of others, noble or base.
They’re bound, though living, to strive and die,
To rise today, to fall tomorrow,
And I, though murdered, a ghost, am free,
Enabled by what I heard by night
To see myself for what I had been.
I need no longer be so in death,
For freedom is mine, the gift of light.
Exposed to sunshine, my life becomes
A mist dissolving within the dawn,
A spark returned, made pure, to the fire.


If you liked this poem, you may like my other works in verse, some of them free, available at my profile on Smashwords.

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